June 2013

The Work of Interpretation-pt.1

 

Over the last couple posts, we have seen that we must interpret the Scripture the way that it was given-in real live history, by actual people who lived, written down in known grammatical languages, given by the true God, and understood by the original audience. Many perceive the Scripture the very opposite of the above. They consider the Bible to be void of historical content, written by men but with a distinctly Platonic spiritual component, given by God and thereby must possess an almost mythological meaning, and only meant for the enlightened to understand. When we compare the two premises, we see that the second more resembles a pagan, mystical understanding of the Scripture rather than a sound, verifiable understanding of the Scripture. Some would continue to see the Scripture as having double-meaning which, to them, means that words don’t really mean what they say. Funny thing is, they seem to possess the actual “second meaning” of any given passage.

What I have attempted to establish is that there is only one meaning in every verse and the effort needed to discover that meaning is rational, sound, and logical. It is guided by rules and produces the mind of God in that text. It is clear, coherent, and at the same time spiritual and heavenly in the sense that it represents heavenly truths or instructions. We do not need to add anything to Scripture in order to embellish its meaning so that it would give off a glow. We must study it by way of sound, objective processes in order for the text itself to instruct US. This process looks like work, and it is. But the text of Scripture demands this.

First of all, since God gave His truth in words, we have to understand these words. These words were written down at a point in time, in a fixed way, using the language employed with meanings of the day. For example, we would not expect Matthew to write, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) and have it mean anything other than what Matthew meant for it to mean to himself and the original readers. After all, he was writing down what Jesus said.

However, knowing all of this, the question comes, “How do we discover this meaning?” What I would like to outline over the next couple posts is a method of study that I use (to which I owe a tremendous debt to The Master’s Seminary for instructing me in this process and exampling it at every turn) and it has been proven to cause the meaning of the text to become clear and plain. That does not mean that there is no depth. Rather the depth of Scripture becomes available only when the text is clear and the meaning plain (understood). What I am also going to explain is also the method that is borne out of the conviction of the text being the copies of an inerrant autograph. Again, if every word in Scripture is inerrant and accurate, then we must understand every word. Words do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of a context. That context itself has a broader context that has a beginning and ending. Every word has meaning and purpose. The definitions, arrangement, and relationship of every word to another is what conveys meaning. Once all of that has been determined, the meaning of every verse becomes plain.

There is a four step method to work all of this out (granted, there are variations of this process, especially as it relates to the original languages). Here it is:

  1. Word study
  2. Syntax study
  3. Historical study
  4. Outline/Notes

WORD STUDY:

This process of word study is just what it sounds like. It is the study of words. What words? The words of Scripture. Since the Scripture was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we could learn to study the words of those languages. Although studying these languages would be expected for a pastor or elder, it would not be usually available for most saints. Therefore, most of God’s people rely upon a translation. Yet, given that a person has a good translation, he/she can still do a proper word study. I am not wanting to stud the history of translations, but here are my recommendations. First, I recommend the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It does the best translation work of all the translations, minimizing editorial interpretation. I would then recommend the King James or New King James (KJV or NKJV). Although some of the words are archaic and a stumbling block for modern readers, it does a fairly good job of translation. The manuscript families represented in the KJV is lesser quality than the family of the NASB. However, it still has proven a faithful translation for decades. A good summary work on translations and how to choose one is Dr. Robert L. Thomas’ work, How To Choose A Bible Version. Having accumulated information concerning the deviations from the original language manuscripts, Dr. Thomas gives us a very useful tool in determining which version would suit us best in translation. At the top of the list was the American Standard Version for its literalness (although in awkward Elizabethan English), and the bottom of the list is The Living Bible. For people who want to study the Scripture in the fashion I am suggesting, the NASB (either the 1971 edition or the 1995 updated edition) would be ideal. A new translation, The English Standard Version (ESV), would also be suitable, but it has a higher degree of deviation from sound translation principles than does the NASB.

For our purposes here, we will study Colossians 1:15

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

To begin a word study, it is helpful to design chart, such as below.

 

word meaning notes miscellaneous

 

The first column, “word,” is just what it appears to be: the word that you are studying. If we take Colossians 1:15 and fill the chart with it step by step, it would look like this:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is
the image
of
the invisible
God
the firstborn
of
all
creation

 

Notice that I put the verb “is” with the subject of the verb “He.” That is helpful so that I can keep it straight who is doing the action of the verb or about whom the verb is speaking. At this point, every word gets addressed. Here is what we have:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is he is this is referring to a description of the subject, “He.” Refers to “beloved Son” of v. 13.
the image representation/pattern not simply kind of looks like, but exact picture See Hebrews 1:1-3
of with reference to tells me of whom he is the image.
the invisible cannot be seen/we do not see the description of
God God/Father Cannot be the same Person God is invisible.
the firstborn the one born first/the preeminent one The Son is not the first one born. Cain is. must refer to preeminence.
of with reference to
all every/completely
creation everything that is made This must refer to everything in Genesis 1-2.

 

At this point, I have every word accounted for in the verse. Although appearing tedious, this step is born out of the conviction that every word in Scripture has importance, meaning, and authority (Luke 16:17). Granted, in order to do this, one must spend some time. However, that is exactly what the Lord would have us do-spend time in His Word.

Also, since the Bible was written in 3 other languages, it is a good idea to have reference works that help in translation of these words. One such works is Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This collection has a good listing of the English words and their Hebrew or Greek definitions as used in the Bible. For example, the word “image” has a large entry and a portion of it says,

 

“1.  ( *0 , 1504) denotes “an image”; the word involves the two ideas of representation and manifestation. “The idea of perfection does not lie in the word itself, but must be sought from the context” (Lightfoot); the following instances clearly show any distinction between the imperfect and the perfect likeness…” (no copyright)

The entry goes on to explain the variety of contexts that use the word “image,” including our passage above. it is very useful. Granted, there are more technical works out there, but this is a good starter for most.

Next post, I will show the subsequent step from the word study step. We can call it the “Syntax Step.” It is the relationship of each word to the other in a verse or sentence.

Where To Start?

Last post we attempted to open the door to considerations concerning the interpretation of Scripture. It must be understood and believed that the Bible is not vague, unknowable, or empty. That is, God did not write the text of Scripture in such a way that, say, there are 4 potential ways God created the world. There are not 4 potential ways that God created the world. He only created it one way. The only way to know that is through the pages of Scripture. “But,” someone will ask, “…how do we interpret the Scripture so that we will know what it says?” That is, if the answer to this question lies in the interpretation of Scripture, then how do we interpret the Scripture? That is what this blog series is about.

Our basic premise is:

STUDY THE BIBLE THE WAY IT WAS GIVEN

Since that is a bit open-ended, I must review the nature of the origin of the Bible. This is a must because when we understand the origin and transmission of the Bible, we then have grounds for interpretation. Until then, we are left to consider our own method of interpretation and that simply won’t do.

How was the Bible given? That is, how did we get the Bible? For most reading this blog, it is a simple answer. For some, however, it may not be so simple since many churches don’t even deal with the origin of God’s Word (to their shame). A quick review will be helpful.

Peter sums it up for us. He wrote,

2 Peter 1:20–21

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Peter tells us, on the basis of his own experience receiving divinely inspired truth (see Matthew 16:13-17), as well as the testimony of the OT prophets, that no portion of Scripture is understood by a single person’s own interpretation. That is, the written word is not subject to, nor did it originate from, what a man decides. Peter is saying that the Scripture is interpreted (see Mark 4:34) by a method, or practice, of interpretation appropriate to the written Word of God. Biblical interpretation is not the result of one’s own personal study habits. The Scripture is not subject to an individual’s unique understanding of a text, no matter how novel it sounds. Why is this the case? Because men did not originate the Scripture, so men cannot be allowed to interpret the Scripture the way they want. In other words, since the Holy Spirit moved men to write what He wanted (see 1 Corinthians 2:12-13), the Scripture, then, must be handled in a way commensurate to that reality. Peter is calling the churches in Galatia, Cappadocia etc. (see 1 Peter 1:1) to approach the Scripture they had, including his own letter (2 Peter 3:1-2, 14-16), in the same way that it was given to the prophets and apostles. Further, since God the Holy Spirit originated the Scripture and moved men to write it down in history and with actual language, we do not have a text that can change or be altered-it is fixed and propositional. If we feared God, we would never approach the Scripture being willing to assume that there are multiple meanings to a verse.

Thus, the Bible is a unique collection of books. It is the only book in existence that is inspired of God. Therefore, it is unique and holy (Romans 7:12). However, since the Holy Spirit moved men to write it, and men lived in time and history, and God is working out His redemptive plan in the history of the world, then it is read and interpreted in the same manner we would read and interpret any other book. It is literature, after all.

The summary of our discussion is that God is the source of Scripture. Since God cannot lie (Titus 1:1-2), then what He caused to be written is true and accurate. This is inerrancy. The Scripture’s that were written were themselves inerrant in every way. They contained no errors. Further, since we don’t have those originals (“autographs”), the copies of those inerrant originals are to be considered and that has been done to the extent that we can have full confidence that we can locate the inerrant text of Scripture with very high precision in the copies we have.

Now, this lays the groundwork for us. Since God wrote the Bible, the teachings and actual words are God’s (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). Thus, it bears authority and accuracy. That is, what it teaches is true and identical to what is true with God and His kingdom. It also is true in relation to discerning the realities of life in this world as well. However, God Himself did not write the text of Scripture with His own hand. He used the hands of men to do it. These men, from Moses to John the Apostle existed in an historical setting and wrote with a language that was/is verifiable and real. They did not use esoteric, heavenly language. If they did, it would not make sense to us. The languages with which they wrote Scripture were composed in the very same way that all language is composed. Therefore, what was written is subject to the laws of language. In order to interpret the Scripture, a person must understand language. By the way, we all do. We could not communicate in the world if we did not. We use nouns and verbs all the time. However, most people simply don’t consider these things when they talk or read the morning newspaper. Lastly, since the text of Scripture was written in history, and with actual languages of the day, and God has written all that He is going to write (Hebrews 1:1-3), then what we have in the Bible is fixed and unalterable. That is, what a passage meant to Ezekiel when he wrote it means the very same thing to us when we read it.

To sum up, here is what we have:

  1. We understand the Bible is from God. Thus we realize its authority, accuracy, and permanency.
  2. We understand the Bible is written by men. Thus we realize its history, language, and propositional nature.
  3. We understand the Bible is fixed. Thus we realize that it is not properly understood apart from the author’s meaning/intention for writing it (it is not from one’s own interpretation).

Therefore, since the Bible is from God, written by men in history and with actual language, we cannot interpret it any other way.

Here is an example:

Exodus 20:13

You shall not murder.

This is straightforward. From the surrounding verses we understand that God is speaking to Moses and Moses is to relay this to Israel (Exodus 20:1; 21:1). The verse is a command. Don’t do something. The translation of the original Hebrew is good here and it simply says, “Don’t kill.” That is, don’t want to kill something and thereby murder. Moses has given Israel a very straightforward and clear instruction. This would be the way that Israel would understand it as well. It is God’s intention in the meaning of the command.

However, some think that when it comes to prophetic passages there are different rules for interpretation. No there are not. How do I know? I know because no matter how fanciful something appears (Ezekiel 1, for example), it was still written down by Ezekiel in actual language. Therefore, a person cannot assign meaning to something that is arbitrary to the language of that passage.

For example, I was speaking with a man one day who refused to believe that the water flowing under the temple in Ezekiel 47:1 is actual water. It appeared too fanciful to him and since he preconceived that water has nothing to do with heavenly things, then this verse must be speaking of something else (which he assigned, i.e. “one’s own interpretation”). Therefore, he assigned a new meaning to that passage which has nothing to do with any of the context in history or language. Further, many other passages affirm water in the temple (Ps. 46:4; Is. 30:25; 55:1; Jer. 2:13; Joel 3:18; Zech. 13:1; 14:8; esp. Rev. 22:1, 17). Thus, in this example, and there are multitudes of examples, the text took on a meaning that is not evident by the history of the writer or the audience, nor does it accord with the language of the passage. There are things figurative in Scripture (John 10:6; 16:25-29). However, many attribute figurative meanings to those things that they don’t believe, or that do not fit into their theological pre-understanding of a passage, or that seem too far-fetched in their view (like water in the Temple). To reassign a meaning to a passage of Scripture is a sin. It is to call God a liar and us the truth-teller. Remember, God is the author of Scripture.

Remember, Paul commanded Timothy to handle the text accurately.

2 Timothy 2:15

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

That is, “cut it straight” in relation to the text of Scripture. Timothy, you must handle the text in an accurate way. To reassign meaning to the propositional and completed text of Scripture is to create your own text. Thus, you can only “preach the Word” after you have actually learned that word (2 Timothy 4:1-2). And the only way to learn that word is in the same manner that it was given.  

 

Next time, I will introduce how to do this in some detail. 

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