Knowing Scripture: Chapters 2&3

In chapter 2, Sproul shows how private interpretation was a pillar of the Reformation, and how it remains central to Protestantism. He explains what private interpretation is and what it isn’t.

2.    Personal Bible study and private interpretation

Bibles today are so easily accessible that we forget the dreadful price that was paid for the privilege of possessing a Bible written in our own language that we can interpret for ourselves.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther was convinced of the clarity of Scripture and the necessity if having believers read and interpret it for themselves. The Catholic church warned that this would open up the possibility of distortion and misinterpretation of Scripture. Luther was aware of these dangers, but was willing to take the risk because he believed that exposing multitudes to the message of the gospel would bring far more to ultimate salvation than to ultimate ruin.

Objectivity and subjectivity

We all struggle with the sinful tendency to read in Scripture what we want to find. Subjectivism takes place when the truth of a statement is not simply expanded or applied to a subject, but when it is absolutely determined by the subject.

In seeking an objective understanding of Scripture, we should first understand what it says in context before applying it to ourselves. A particular statement may have numerous applications but only one meaning.

Subjectivism produces error and arrogance. To argue that my opinion is true simply because it is my opinion is arrogant.

The role of teachers

In the OT, there were many false prophets (see Jeremiah 23:25-32). It must be noted that not all false prophets spoke put of malice, some were just ignorant.

In the NT, James warns that not many should presume to be teachers (James 3:1). Those who teach, be they pastors or lay Bible study leaders, should have a sound knowledge of the Bible.

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In chapter 3, Sproul introduces the reader to hermeneutics, which is the craft of interpreting Scripture.

3.    Hermeneutics: The science of interpretation

The purpose of hermeneutics is to lay down guidelines and rules for interpretation.

The analogy of faith

The Reformers re-defined the basic principle of interpretation, the first of which is called ‘the analogy of faith’ i.e., Scripture is to interpret Scripture. This means that no section of Scripture can be rendered in such a way that it conflicts with what is taught clearly elsewhere in Scripture. This principle is based on the confidence that the Bible is the word of God, and is therefore consistent and coherent.

Interpreting the Bible literally

This second rule states that the Bible should be interpreted according to its literal sense, i.e. the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. Under inspiration, a noun remains a noun, and a verb remains a verb.

Literary interpretation and genre analysis

I’ll let Sproul do the talking:

“Genre analysis involves the study of such things as literary forms, figures of speech and style. We do this with all kinds of literature. We distinguish lyric poetry and legal briefs, between newspaper accounts of current events and epic poems… Failure to make these distinctions when dealing with the Bible can lead to a host of problems with interpretation.”

For example, the historicity of Jonah has been doubted by many. Some reject its being a historical account  because the entire second chapter is written in a style that is clearly poetic. They conclude that Jonah is a kind of epic/dramatic poem and isn’t meant to convey historical fact. Others reject Jonah arguing that it shouldn’t be taken seriously as it involves a miracle of nature. These scholars do not believe miracles can happen. Whereas the former reject Jonah on literary grounds, the latter reject it on philosophical-theological grounds.

Hyperbole: This is defined as “a statement exaggerated fancifully, as for effect”, and it often presents a problem in literary analysis. An example of hyperbole can be found in Matthew 9:35:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.

Does this mean every single village was visited? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Even today we may say the same thing: the whole town turned up to welcome their hero.

Personification: the Bible describes hills as dancing and the trees as clapping their hands. These are recognizable enough. But what do we do with Balaam’s donkey? Does the speaking animal indicate the presence of fable in the text? Or is this evidence of a miracle? The subjective answer to this depends on whether one believes in miracles or not.

(Chapter 3 to be continued)