Knowing Scripture: Chapter 4

In this (long) chapter, Sproul gives ten rules for interpreting the Bible.

4.    Practical rules for biblical interpretation

i.                   The Bible is to be read like any other book

This doesn’t mean the Bible is like every other book. It means that the Bible doesn’t take on special magic that changes the basic literary patterns of interpretation. Like in any other book, a verb remains a verb and a noun is a noun.

That said, it is necessary to seek the assistance and guidance of God in interpreting the spiritual significance of the Bible.

ii.                 Read the Bible existentially

This doesn’t mean taking the Scriptures out of their historical context to get their subjective meaning. What it means is reading the Bible and getting passionately and personally involved in what we read. We try and put ourselves in the life situation of the characters of Scripture in order to better understand what we’re reading.

In the OT we read of harsh judgment imposed by God, and our reaction is confusion or indignation. We may clear up these questions by asking ourselves, “Why does God do this?” For example, Leviticus 10:1-3 records the sins of Aaron’s sons and their subsequent execution, as well as His reasons for acting as He did.

iii.              Historical narratives are to be interpreted by the didactic

‘Didactic’ comes from the Greek word that means to teach or instruct. Didactic literature teaches or explains, e.g. much of Paul’s writing. The Gospels are part historical narrative and part teaching and interpretation.

A rule of thumb developed by the Reformers is that the Epistles should interpret the Gospels rather than the other way around. This is not to set apostle against apostle by elevating either the Gospels or the Epistles. It would be dangerous to build a doctrine from narrative alone. By reading of David and Paul we can learn much, but we aren’t to pattern our lives on their sinful behaviour.

iv.               The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit

In general, we can distinguish between what is explicitly said and that which is left unsaid though implied. An example of this in the Bible is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body. Many believe that it is a body capable of moving through solid objects, based on John 20:19. The text doesn’t say that Jesus floated in, so it is possible that He opened the (locked) door and walked in. Maybe He did float in, we just don’t know.

v.                  Determine carefully the meaning of words

There are two basic methods by which words are defined: by etymology and by customary usage.

Etymology is the science of word derivations. For example, we see the word hippopotamus and wonder how it came about. If we know Greek, we know that hippos means ‘horse’ and potamos means ‘river’. Thus a hippopotamus is a ‘river horse’. Studying the origins of a word can also give us important insight. For example, the Hebrew word translated ‘glory’ originally meant ‘heavy’ or weighty’. Hence, God’s glory has to do with His ‘weightiness’ and ‘significance’.

It is also important to study language in the context of its usage since words undergo changes in meaning. A word may be so commonly misused that its misuse becomes the customary meaning, e.g. gay.

Words may also have multiple meanings and the context helps us determine the particular meaning of the word.  For example, in the Bible we read of ‘the will of God’; there are at lest 6 different ways in which this word is used. Sproul says:

“Sometimes the word will refers to the precepts God has revealed to his people. That is, his will is his ‘prescribed order of duty for his people.’ The term will is also used to describe ‘God’s sovereign action by which God brings to pass whatsoever he wills to happen.’ We call this God’s efficacious will because it effects what he wants. Then there is the sense of will being ‘that which is pleasing to God, that which he delights in.’

“Let us see how a passage of Scripture can be interpreted in light of these three different meanings of will: God is ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet 3:9 KJV). This could mean: (1) God has legislated a precept that no one is allowed to perish; it is against the law of God for us to perish; (2) God has sovereignly decreed and effects most certainly that no one will ever perish; or (3) God is not pleased or delighted when people perish. Which of these three would you think is correct? Why? If we examine the context in which this appears and follow the analogy of faith taking into account the larger context of the whole of Scripture, only one of these meanings  makes sense, namely the third.”

Another category to watch out for are words whose meanings become doctrinal concepts, e.g. salvation. A  problem arises when we read the ultimate sense of salvation in every text that contains the word salvation. Paul says on one occasion that women will be “saved in childbearing” (1 Tim 2:15 KJV). Does this mean that men are saved in Christ, but women are saved simply by having children? Paul must be speaking of another level of salvation in this verse.

(Chapter to be continued)