Interpreting the Scriptures
Q. Every time I try to discuss the Gospel with my friends they just answer, "That's your interpretation!" and therefore "of the flesh" and so the discussion comes to an end. They say they will not follow human teachers but only the "Spirit". How do I answer such an objection?
A. If that is their sincere answer, and not just a way of copping out, then you can't have a discussion with them, for their position is essentially existentialism. For an existentialist there is no objective truth -- truth is measured only in terms of what one "experiences". The logical conclusion of existentialism is that truth is personal and therefore cannot be rationally discussed.
I do not know if your friends are existentialist -- they probably don't use the term -- but their attitude is certainly very much existentialist, meaning, their religion is subjective.
It is, of course, true that no two people see exactly eye-to-eye in all things in this mortal sphere. The only time this will happen is when the saints come to a perfect "unity of the faith" (i.e. perfection) (Eph.4:3) which scripture and life itself amply testifies is not the human condition. It is for this reason that God established His Church with men and women gifted in different ministries (1 Cor.12:28-30). So long as people are imperfect and not grounded on solid doctrine, then they will forever remain "infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph.4:14, NIV).
Whether we like it or not, everyone -- saint and sinner -- interprets. The word "interpret", which is derived from the Hebrew pathar and the Greek hermenei meaning to "explain" (from which we get the English, hermeneutics or "scriptural interpretation". Nowhere in the Scriptures does it say that we are not to interpret but they do lay down sound rules to enable us to do so. Without interpretation there would be no Scriptures at all! So the question really is: What is valid interpretation, and what is not? Clearly the retort, "the Spirit tells me so" is not only unacceptable if humans are to have any meaningful verbal intercourse but must be supported by other evidences. The Christian faith is, after all, based on reasonable evidence. It is an immensely practical faith, having both an esoteric (inner, spiritual) as well as an exoteric (outer, sensual) component which will (if a proposition is true) complement and support one another. As we shall see, God has given us "many infallible proofs" (Ac.1:3, KJV), meaning that we can establish all the essential points of the Gospel in an incontrovertible way to those who are honest of heart. Whether one then accepts the Gospel (or rejects it) is, of course, a personal matter.
Let us start with some assumptions, as we must do if we are to argue anything. We all agree, I am sure, that the Bible exists and that it is God's principle medium of expressing Himself in the written form. If we can't agree that it is God's Word then we really have nothing to work from and our discussions are merely moving targets. We can, of course, establish that our assumption is true, but I will not do that here. If you like, we can start with the premiss that all of Jesus's words are absolutely true and work our way out from that. If we are Christians we must surely do that, mustn't we? Jesus's words, in their turn, confirm or corroborate other words. Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ throughout His ministry confirms the divine authenticity of the Tanakh, or "Old Testament". Thus if we accept Jesus's words, we must accept what He says about other peoples' words. If we don't, then we can just pack up and go home.
Moreover, we have Jesus' testimony about the Comforter, or Holy Spirit, being sent after His death to teach believers. It is axiomatic that the Holy Spirit will not contradict what Jesus says, or what Jesus Himself has confirmed. Therefore any teaching that claims to be inspired of the Holy Spirit and contradicts what Jesus has said or endorsed must be false.
Having established what is, and what is not, God's Word, we must next "explain" or "interpret" it. In several places Jesus interprets the Tanakh (Old Testament), thereby giving us keys of interpretation. In addition, we must use a certain amount of common sense. If something can be established using the senses like, for example, that the world is round and not flat, then if anyone who has eyes and can see the evidence maintains that it is flat, has no business relating to people on this physical plane. This is called the scientific method. This method obviously cannot comment on the unseen, but on what is visible it most certainly has an important part to play.
The purpose of biblical interpretation, all are agreed, is to make the meaning and message of the biblical writings plain to their readers. Some principles of interpretation are common to the Bible and other literature. Other principles of interpretation are bound up with the unique place of the Bible in the revelation of God and in the life of His people.
Each part of the Bible must be interpreted in its context, and that means not only its immediate verbal context but the wider context of time, place, and human situation to which it belongs. There are a number of considerations to be kept in mind if the meaning of the text is to be grasped as fully as is desirable.
a. Language and Style. The idioms and constructions of the biblical languages can differ quite widely from those with which we are familiar today, and some acquaintance with these is necessary for a proper interpretation. The literary categories represented in the Bible should also be noted; this will save us, for example, from interpreting poetry according to the canons of prose narration, or vice versa. Most of the literary categories in the Bible are well known from other literature, but biblical prophecy, and still more biblical apocalyptic, have features peculiar to themselves which call for special interpretative procedures (see The Four Modes of Scriptural Interpretation).
b. Historical Background. The biblical narrative covers the whole span of Near Eastern civilisation until A.D. 100, a period of several millennia within which a succession of sweeping changes took place. It is therefore important to relate the various phases of the biblical revelation to their proper historical context if we are to understand them aright; otherwise we may find ourselves, for example, assessing people's conduct in the Middle Bronze Age by the ethical standards of the Gospels. And we can discern the permanent principles in a biblical document only when we first of all relate that document to the conditions of its own times; we shall then be better able to reapply to our own times those features of its teaching which are valid for all time.
c. Geographical Setting. We should not underestimate the influence exercised by climate and terrain on a people's outlook and way of life, including its religion. The religious conflicts in the Old Testament are interwoven with the conditions of Palestinian geography. Baal-worship, for example, arose in a land where life depended on rain. To the Canaanites Baal was a storm-god who fertilised the earth, and Baal-worship was a magical ritual calculated to ensure regular rainfall and plentiful harvests. Indeed, to such an extent have geographical conditions entered into the biblical language, literal and figurative, that some acquaintance with these conditions is necessary for an understanding of the language. This is especially true of the Old Testament, but even in the New it has long been recognised, for instance, that the historical geography of Asia Minor makes an important contribution to the interpretation of Acts and the Epistles.
d. The Human Situation. Even more important than questions of time, place, and language are questions about the everyday life of the people whom we meet in the Bible, their loves and hates, their hopes and fears, their social relations, and so forth. To read the Bible without regard to this living environment is to read in it a vacuum and to put constructions upon it which it was never intended to bear. Thanks largely to archaeological discovery, we are able to reconstruct in fair measure the private and public conditions in which people of the Bible lived, in age after age; while a sympathetic reading of the text itself enables us in some degree to get under their skins and look at the world through their eyes. It is not unimportant to try to envisage what it must have felt like to be a servant in Abraham's household, an Israelite slave in Egypt, a citizen of Jericho when Joshua's men were marching round the city, or a citizen of Jerusalem in the face of Senacherib's threats, a soldier in David's army, a captive maid waiting on Namaan's wife, or a builder of the wall under Nehemiah. We may then realise that part of the Bible's perennial appeal is due to its concentration on those features of human life that remain basically the same in all times and places.
These may be considered to be the general form for interpretation of the Bible. But there are special methods which cannot be neglected because they are everywhere used within the texts themselves (see The Four Methods of Biblical Interpretation, op.cit.).
Biblical interpretation involves not only the interpretation of the several documents but their interpretation as part of a whole of God's revelation to mankind. The Bible begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation and yet the spirit that connects the two ends is the same throughout. Each part may be said to illuminate the other and to contain more than the sum of its parts. We must also understand that the Bible is not linear -- we cannot start with Genesis and claim that we are moving from the "primitive" to the "sophisticated", or from a shadow to the fullness (with the exception of expressly stated shadows and types, e.g. the animal sacrificial system). For the fullness is present from the very beginning. Indeed, the extent to which the Abrahamic Covenant is seen as part and parcel of the New Covenant makes it very clear that the Bible ought to be seen more as a circle than a line, so that no matter where we enter it, we will always arrive at the same spiritual sense. It is only when people have tried to dissect the Bible scientifically that they have got themselves into deep water and missed the underlying stream.
For example, traditionally the Old Testament has been divided up into the Torah (Teaching/Law/Pentateuch), the Nevi'im (Prophets) and the Kethuvim (Writings) as though they were three separate things. But to view them in this way is to miss the unifying principle containing them all. In traditional Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, also used by Jesus, this unifying principle was found in the Torah, understood in accordance with the teaching of the great rabbinical schools of which Jesus was a part. The Prophets and Writings were treated largely as commentaries on the Law, just as indeed the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament essentially are. Without the Law the New Testament is, in fact, meaningless, and interpreting it apart from the Law has scuttled many a brilliant mind. For there was always, in addition to the surface meaning of the text (p'shat) the more extended application, the drash, derived from the use of various well-defined principles by exegesis which modern interpreters, grounded in the Western intellectual mind-frame, find extremely difficult to understand. This midrashic form of interpretation belonged from the earliest days first to the School of the Prophets and then, latterly, to the Rabbinical Schools. Without these keys interpretation of the scriptures is usually restricted to the literal p'shat.
In the New Testament and early Christian literature the Old Testament oracles are viewed as a unity, making the reader "wise unto salvation" and equipping him with all he needs for the service of God (2 Tim.3:15ff). But what contemporary Christians often forget is that this unity was only possible to perceive by means of spiritual keys which were handed down orally to the Hebrew sages and never committed to writing. These keys were either passed on by word of mouth or recommunicated by God to His prophets by direct revelation.
We have maintained that the Bible is, in fact, many times thicker than the ones you buy in the shop, but that what lies beyond the printed word can only be apprehended by grasping this unity which validates every word as the Word of God. It is only false exegesis, based on wrong assumptions or limited spiritual vision, which divides the Bible up into "inspired" or "uninspired", "old" or "new" covenant, "primitive" and "advanced". For we must never forget that the prophets, speaking in the same power of the Holy Spirit that attended the apostles, bear witness to Christ as the One in whom the promises of God find their literal fulfilment. The New Testament writers, whose diversity of personality, style, and thought must be taken into account in the interpretation of their works, are agreed on this. In Hebrews 1:1f where it is written, "in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways" is contrasted with the perfect and final word which he has spoken to His Son; in the Pauline writings God's dealings with the world are traced through successive stages associated with Adam, Abraham, Moses and Christ. Biblical interpretation in the New Testament has Christ as the unifying principle, but this principle is not applied mechanistically but in such a way as to bring out the historical and progressive nature of the biblical revelation connecting the beginning (the alpha) with the end (the omega), showing that Christ has been in the process from beginning to end. Thus each prophet and teacher illuminates each part of the whole which Christ then ties together into one single continuum. Thus all blend together into a single whole -- inwardly and outwardly.
In the New Testament we find the unifying principle revealed on the invisible, spiritual plane. Christ is physically absent, but will not be so indefinitely. The Bible is leading us to yet another dispensation, its final form only hinted at in the Old and New Testaments -- the Millennial Theocracy.
Any valid interpretation of the Bible must not only take the past and present into account but also the future, because the future is as integrally a part of the unity as the past.
Since the New Testament was written, Christianity has spread around the world in myriad forms. Over two thousand years of biblical interpretation was heavily influenced by a Greek concept of inspiration which called for large-scale allegorisation of the text. This influence was most apparent in Alexandria, where in the pre-Christian period it is found in the biblical interpretation of Philo. By allegorisation, it was believed, the mind of the inspiring Spirit could be ascertained; by allegorisation much of the Bible that was ethically or intellectually "unacceptable" to those who increasingly adopted an anti-Semitic stance, could be made "acceptable". This is, unfortunately, a typical perversion that has been going on until today. Instead of letting the text speak for itself, semi-believers have anaesthetised the text by "reading into it" almost anything their hearts desire.
This method was developed by the Alexandrian fathers and taken over from them by many of the Western Fathers. In the process, it obscured the mind of the Spirit and obliterated the historical character of biblical revelation. Much of this thinking still pervades Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant theology.
The distinction between the literal sense of Scripture and the higher or spiritual sense was elaborated in mediaeval times, and three varieties of spiritual sense were distinguished: the allegorical, which deduced doctrine from the narrative; the moral, which drew lessons for life and behaviour; and the anagogical, which derived heavenly meanings from earthly things.
The Reformers laid fresh emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture, and on the grammatico-historical method of exegesis as the way to establish the literal sense. Lacking in this method was the continued use of Hellenised biblical manuscripts; rather than seeking to understand the original Hebrew mind-frame, the Reformers interpreted the New Testament (particularly) through Greek eyes.
We must also remember that the use of the Bible in the life of Christians continually brings fresh aspects of its meaning to light, although these fresh aspects have general validity only as they are rooted in the true and original sense. Unfortunately, sight of this original sense became increasingly lost by the end of the twentieth century as newer Bible translations, incorporating spurious Gnostic-inspired texts, came to replace majority manuscripts. This, coupled by the continued Greek view of the New Testament, has produced many strange forms of Christianity which are almost wholly divorced from true Biblical doctrine and practice.
One form of interpretation which is very common in our day is typological interpretation which has been used without proper caution and restraint. Its most acceptable form is that which discerns in the biblical recital of God's acts of mercy and judgement a recurring rhythm, by virtue of which earlier stages in the recital can be viewed as foreshadowings and illustrations of later stages (cp. Paul's use of the wilderness experiences of Israel in 1 Cor.10:1ff).
There can be little doubt that scriptural interpretations in our day are radically polarising Christians into what I will describe as neo-Hellenistic occultism, which sees Biblical Christianity a passing "phase" into a New (occultic) Age, sweeping away "primitive" doctrines and practices -- and what might broadly be caused Hebraisation -- the return to the New Testament's original Hebrew roots. On the one side there are those churches who are stressing more and more the providential place of Israel in the end-time scenario (whilst essentially still playing the Reformation melody), then there are the Messianic Jews who have done great work in restoring the original sense of the New Testament (but who are divided into a spectrum of differing interpretational groups, from ultra-orthodox to liberal, as in the "Gentile" Christian world), and lastly, the New Covenant Church of God which, unlike any of the other groupings, is preparing for the Millennial Kingdom to come.
I hope it is apparent that there is no such thing as a Gospel of Jesus Christ without some form of interpretation. The way we view Scripture is more often than not a synergism of different interpretational schools. In understanding other Christians' interpretational points-of-view I myself would ask them some important questions:
- Do you recognise the unity of the Bible?
- Is your theology internally consistent?
- Is your theology static or constantly changing?
- What version(s) of the Bible do you use?
- Do you know which Greek New Testament manuscripts (MSS) form the basis of your NT? Have you checked these against the majority (99%) MSS or might your version be based on a minority (1%) text as nearly all modern Bibles are?
- Does your Bible translation bring out the original Hebrew sense of the Gospel or has it been Hellenised?
- What is your foundation theology? (Do you, for instance, accept the Apostles' Creed?)
- Do you believe you have come to perfection? Is the New Covenant fully written in your mind and heart?
- Do you come with a revelation which you believe to be superior to the Bible in any way?
- Do you regard yourself as being "more enlightened" or "superior" in any way to the apostles (those who will judge the 12 Tribes of Israel, into which you will one day be adopted ?), etc..
It is not difficult to ascertain whether someone is a Bible-believing Christian or not by posing such questions. My final question would always be:
- If what you believe is wrong, would you want to know about it and adjust your life accordingly?
Many people, especially "independents" who claim no Church membership save some non-descript (and completely unbiblical) "invisible" or "Spiritual" entity, usually have theologies which are reactions against some other theology which they cannot accept for emotional reasons, rather than being something that stands independently of their own religious background or experience. The Protestant swing against organised religion had more to do with "opposing Catholicism" than seeking the true theocratic path. In my experience there is little consistency in their method of interpretation which owes itself to pure subjectivism, for which the Holy Spirit is given the credit and is the rationale behind all belief. We must never forget the terrible sin which blaspheming the Holy Spirit is (Mk.3:29) by crediting the Third member of the Godhead with our own feelings. Such bear a heavy responsibility on their shoulders and must understand the gravity of what they are saying.
Interpretation is part of the Christian way of life. You cannot escape it. Whilst some interpretation may not be complete that does not necessarily make it wrong. Wrong interpretation is another matter altogether. New Covenant Christians do not maintain that their interpretation is always full. Occasionally we are wrong and I will give an illustration of this from my own personal experience.
Towards the end of 1995 I decided I would put aside all my personal theological beliefs and re-read the New Testament from scratch. Up until then I had maintained that there was one Christian Priesthood -- the Melchizedek Priesthood, and that this Priesthood contained three Priesthood Divisions or Orders -- the Patriarchal, Melchizedek, and Aaronic (or Zadokian). At that time I used the New International Version as my ground text. My conclusion was that there was no justification from the NT for three Priesthood degrees, despite the fact that our revelations had openly proclaimed them. Not wishing to conceal anything from the members of the Church, I announced my findings, which caused no small amount of consternation. This partly led to the schism we had at the end of 1995.
I subsequently obtained a copy of the Jewish New Testament by David Stern and a book by G.A.Riplinger called, New Age Bible Versions. The former demonstrated that our European and American Bibles are based on faulty translations of the original Greek and the latter demonstrated the modern European and American Bibles (including my NIV) are based on minority texts. (I believe Riplinger to be wrong on her KJV-Only position, though). Though willing to repudiate the revelations of the Church and all that I had done over the past 10 years should I have discovered that I had been misled by pre-conceived theology from other Christian traditions, my research, conducted mostly in the summer of 1996, confirmed what the Church revelations had always maintained, and which I have tried to explain elsewhere in this Your Questions Answered in this issue.
The fact of the matter is that the New Covenant Priesthood does indeed contain three Orders as we have always maintained. By the grace of God, we did not produce a new Church Constitution last April as we had planned to do as this contained the erroneous conclusions I had come to from my ill-advised study of the NIV without checking up the original MSS.
In one way I am glad providence took this turn because I have found out for myself what I had always previously only ever accepted in faith. The results of these studies are presently being published.
A final word about those who claim that they are being taught by the "Holy Spirit" and refuse human instructors. The New Testament nowhere says that the Holy Spirit will teach new doctrines to the masses. Its purpose is to: (a) comfort the saints in Jesus's physical absence (Jn.14:16; 16:7); (b) remind the apostles -- and particularly those who would write the New Testament -- what Jesus said in mortality (Jn.14:26); and (c) confirm the truth of what is revealed to God's servants (Jn.15:26). Unfortunately, bad translations of John 14:26 have led to the false idea that the Holy Spirit will teach believers "all things" when in fact Jesus said: "But the Counsellor, the Ruach HaKodesh, whom the Father will send in My Name, will teach you everything; that is (to say), he will remind you of EVERYTHING I HAVE SAID (to you apostles)" (JNT). Note this well, the Comforter (Holy Spirit) will (in this context) be given to the apostles to remind them of everything that Jesus taught them in the flesh! This is not a licence for every Christian to be given new doctrinal teachings. That privilege is reserved to the prophets (Amos 3:7), those whom God has called and foreordained to that ministry (Jer.1:5) and set in the Christian Church alongside the apostles (1 Cor.12:28-29; Eph.2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 2 Pet.3:2; Rev.18:20).
The doctrine that God will reveal "everything" to all honestly searching Christians who refuse to acknowledge apostles, prophets, and the Church God has established, is quite simply unbiblical and is a Pandora's box of potential mischief. God has given the responsibility of interpretation to His apostles, prophets and elders, and not to every Tom, Dick and Harry. That is not, however, to say that the lay-member or deacon is to give what apostles, prophets and elders say or teach carte blanche, but they are to search out for a confirmation (a) in what God has already revealed in Bible; and (b) by the Comforter who bears witness of the truth. No-one is to obey blindly but is called to "test everything (and) hold on to the good" (1 Thes.5:21, NIV) provided they do not "put out the Spirit's fire" or "treat prophecies with contempt" (vv.19-20), remembering that not only are they to test all things (1 Jn.4:1) but that they shall themselves be tested (Ex.16:4; 20:20; Dt.8:2; Judg.3:4;1 Chr.29:7; Ps.26:2; Jer.11:20; Dan.1:12; Zec.13:9; 2 Cor.2:9; 8:8; 13:5-7; Gal.6:4; Jas.1:12; Rev.2:10; 3:10).
May I suggest, in conclusion, that all examine themselves in the light of what Jesus says:
"If you obey My commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed My Father's commandments and remain in His love"
This page was created on 16 October 1997
Last updated on 17 December 2007
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