Written Word

Interpreting the Bible – Part 3

God has revealed his will in the Scriptures with the obvious intention of being understood. So when we read the Bible we need to know if we are reading historical narrative, poetry, psalms, prophecy, doctrine or an account of the life of Jesus. Furthermore, we need to appreciate the distinctive style of each writer and the cultural background against which he wrote.

Some Guiding Principles

There are “tools” we can use to ensure that we arrive at a correct interpretation of the Scriptures. For example, if you were interpreting the epistles the following must be kept in mind:

  • To whom was the letter written?
  • What was the purpose of the letter?
  • How would the recipient of the letter have understood it?
  • What is the obvious meaning of the text?
  • What is the context of the text?
  • Is the text written with a particular culture in mind?
  • Is the interpretation in harmony with the rest of Scripture?
  • A text always means what the author intended it to mean.

Let’s look at a few examples that show the importance of applying these tools. Both James and Paul find a common ally in Abraham to support what they are teaching. Paul sees in Abraham the perfect example of a man justified by faith apart from works while James sees in Abraham the perfect example of a man justified by faith that works. (Romans 4:1-3; James 2:21-24) Both men can legitimately call upon Abraham for the support they need in what they are teaching. Paul is refuting the legalism that was creeping into the church; a legalism that taught that one could not be saved unless one performed works. This teaching, though well intentioned, was an attack upon the gospel that claims the death of Jesus is the only basis of our salvation. James, on the other hand, teaches that a living faith can be seen because it is an active faith. The faith of Abraham responded in obedience to the command of God to offer up his son Isaac. James sees in this incident a living faith, responding to the commands of God, while Paul is teaching that works (meritorious deeds done in an attempt to earn God’s favour) have no part in our salvation. Paul and James are not in conflict (as Luther thought) once we understand the context of their teachings.

Another example is found in Romans 6. This chapter states that in baptism the penitent sinner is identified, by faith, with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus and becomes a new creation in Christ. But it is not Paul’s primary purpose in this chapter to teach about baptism. His main purpose is to answer the foolish question “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1) He does this by showing how unacceptable it is for one who has been baptised to continue living in sin: It’s not impossible, but it’s totally incompatible with the profession of faith made in baptism. The emphasis of the chapter is on holy living, not on the need to be baptised, though one’s need to be baptised is included. We can only see this emphasis when we ask the text the right questions and use the text only as intended by the writer.

Philippians 2:1-11 provides another example. With utmost clarity Paul shows that Jesus is indeed God. But that is not his main point. He is concerned with showing that Jesus is God who became a servant, so that believers will see him as a model to imitate. We will miss the instruction to live as servants if we miss the main purpose for which the text was written.

Finally, how often have we heard these words used to provide assurance when only a few turn up for the prayer meeting: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) That the Lord is always with us is the testimony of his word. (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5-6) But the words of our Lord are stated in the context of church discipline being taken by the leaders of the church towards an impenitent sinner. In the decision they have to take, the Lord is with them.

We will gain a fuller understanding of God and his will for our lives, and in some cases avoid outright heresy and church division, if our interpretation of Scripture is the result of asking the text the right questions and attempting to understand the context of each passage. When we ask the right questions of the text we get the right answers.