Understanding The Scriptures

3. Principles Employed In Our Study Of The Holy Scriptures (Continued).

In previous articles we have looked at some of the elementary principles of interpretation. If we are to gain a correct understanding of what is written, the application of these principles to our study of the Bible is vital. However, it would be naive to suggest that everyone will arrive at the same interpretation of the very difficult passages of Scripture, especially those passages that have given great perplexity to diligent and spiritual minds. I should like, therefore, to recommend some further principles that can be employed in studying the Scriptures.

D. Discovering The Details Of The Text

In any passage of Scripture the goal of interpretation is to discover and explain exactly what it means, not what we, or others think it means. No effort should be spared and nothing should be taken for granted, in working towards this discovery. Systematic study will be required as in order to understand its meaning. The first and fundamental question is, “What are the words of the original text?” Next we must ask, “What does the text convey?” If we work hard at establishing what exactly the text of scripture is, it will be so much easier to find out what that text is saying. Unless we have a detailed knowledge of the original languages and are able to engage in the discipline of textual criticism, we will have to rely on the work of reliable scholars in these two fields of academic study. We should thank God for spiritual men who have specialized in these studies; the fruits of their labors are available in many excellent volumes, which are well worth perusing.

Having established the details of the text, we must then ask, “What is the text saying?” What was in the mind of the one whom God used to write the particular book? We would need to consider the historical setting of the passage, the geographical location in which it was written, the people to whom it was written, and the conditions pertaining at that time. We cannot get a correct understanding of the text without investigating each of these questions.

In order to explore these aspects of the text, we must set aside traditional interpretations and pre-conceived ideas. Discovering the exact and true meaning of the text should always be our aim. If we neglect to remove the ecclesiastical bias of the translators in the words baptism, church, and bishop, for instance, we will not discover the true meaning of the passages where these words appear.

E. Differentiating Between Interpretation and Application

While we should strive to get the true interpretation of a passage, we must recognize that there are many ways in which that passage can be applied. The main purpose of Scripture is not to feed the mind but to mold the life; and this practical objective should always be remembered. When reading passages that deal with the Old Testament types or New Testament parables, the difference between interpretation and application is important. It is inadvisable to teach doctrine from the types. We should teach doctrine from the clear declarations of the New Testament and use the types as illustrations. The gospel of the grace of God is not taught in the Old Testament, but there are many historical incidents and types that can be used to portray the truths of the gospel. Therefore we should aim to determine the doctrinal teaching of the passage, and then find its practical application. The words of Bengel are very relevant here: “Apply thyself wholly to the Scriptures, and apply the Scriptures wholly to thyself.”

F. Differing Interpretations

When we keep in mind that the Scriptures have a Divine origin and we have human limitations, it is easy to understand why there is such a divergence in interpretation. This should not, however, deter us in our study of the Word of God. The fact that the Bible presents difficulties to even the best of human minds, is another evidence that it has its origin outside man altogether. If everything were crystal clear, there would be cause to doubt its Divine origin.

When dealing with differing interpretations, we must distinguish clearly between what the Scriptures actually mean and what we think they mean. It is possible that our interpretation of a passage may not be correct! Many have been guilty of upholding and defending their interpretation as if it was the very Word of God itself. When we find ourselves in disagreement with others in the interpretation of a passage, we should treat their views with Christian respect. It might just be that they are right and we are wrong!

Of course, I am speaking here of passages where no fundamental teaching is involved. For instance, the identity of the two beasts in Revelation 13 has for centuries been a subject for debate and difference. But if there is to be true fellowship, there are truths about which we must agree. Some examples would be the essential deity of Christ, His virgin birth, impeccable humanity, atoning sufferings, and salvation by faith in Christ alone. However, there are truths about which we can agree to disagree, without affecting our fellowship. To teach all portions of Scripture as if they were of the same fundamental importance manifests an imbalance that would need to be corrected.

G. Difficult Passages

There are some passages of Scripture that are extremely difficult to understand: the language and concepts are obscure. We must approach these passages with a humble spirit and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their understanding. We should not be apprehensive about consulting the commentaries written by men of God who have wrestled with the same difficulties. The Holy Spirit has gifted them to teach, and they may be able to throw some light on the problem. We should not demonstrate an independent spirit that refuses to accept what godly men have taught.

When comparing passages of Scripture, we should never allow a difficult passage to obscure a clear passage. Difficult passages should never be used to explain passages that are clear and plain: what we do not fully understand must not be allowed to interfere with what we do understand. It is very helpful, therefore, to look at the difficult passage in the light of what we know from the clearer passage.

H. Diligent Comparison

There are two areas in which we must compare the results of our study of the Word of God. First, does it agree with the rest of the Bible? Any interpretation that obviously conflicts with other parts of Scripture must be reviewed and rejected. Second, we should compare the results of our study with what gifted men have taught. If we find our interpretation of a passage to be widely at odds with what they have found, we would need to look again. We should be hesitant about putting forward an interpretation that is at variance with their teaching. It is wise to privately discuss the results of our Bible study with a mature brother in the assembly. We will find great encouragement in discovering that the Holy Spirit Who taught them, has been teaching us as well. It will build confidence and increase our thirst for more study of the Scriptures. In this way we will derive a blessing from our own study, and even greater benefit from the ministry of others.

I. Divine Truth In Total

We should bear in mind that, even with the varied principles previously discussed, the Bible is one organic whole. Therefore, every interpretation of a passage of Scripture must be tested in the light of the whole truth of God, and be consistent with the general tenor of Divine truth. At first sight there are passages that appear to be contradictory, but when examined prayerfully and carefully, they turn out to be exquisite and beautiful parts of a glorious pattern. Each part of the Word of God dovetails perfectly into the whole; there is nothing unbalanced or out of place.

The overall plan of Gods Word is the revelation of His Son. If we diligently and continually look for Christ in the Scriptures we will arrive more readily at the true meaning of the text, for He is its subject and fullness. Human investigation will never completely discover all there is to learn in the Word of God, because Jesus Christ our Lord is infinite. Each new study will reveal fresh truths to thrill the soul and draw us closer to Him.