Biblical Interpretation Considered (1)

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Initial Thoughts

When Bible believing Christians come together in study of God’s Word they are often confronted by a disturbing reality.  That being, sometimes there are almost as many interpretations of a given text as there are believers present!  On one hand this is to be expected in a world dominated by the philosophy of ultimate human autonomy.  On the other hand this fact creates deep disturbance.  For if you are a Bible believing Christian then to some significant extent you have accepted the idea that God’s Word conveys Truth (i.e., capital T ultimate truth).  So when we come together in fellowship around the Bible we sometimes discover that it is not Truth that is discussed but rather the many individualistic truths that each member claims for themselves.

At this point I could launch into discussion of the various theologies that underlie this disunity.  By so doing I can’t avoid either implicitly or explicitly arguing for my own preferred theology.  Although I have and will continue to advocate on this point, in this context doing so would be counterproductive.  

So then, how to make any progress?  Perhaps one productive way forward is to agree on a few axioms (i.e., principles which are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true) for Biblical interpretation.  The goal is not to insist on any particular outcome, but rather to have an agreed set of conventions that guide our interpretative work.  So, here are my suggestions in this regard.

  1. The ultimate author of God’s Word is God Himself, working through the Holy Spirit to inspire His chosen human authors to write that which is True and necessary for our salvation, our understanding of God’s nature and of His expectations for our belief and behavior.
  2. Although we gladly confess our complete dependence on the Holy Spirt to guide our interpretation of Scripture, we affirm that any result that contradicts teaching found in the established Protestant Cannon of Scripture is not from the Holy Spirt nor is valid as a Christian guide.
  3. God’s Word is indivisible, so no Christian has the right to partition the Bible into “authoritative” and “less/not authoritative” parts, be it by Testament (Old and New), author, book, chapter, verse or any other means.
  4. Although we affirm use of history, philosophy, commentary and other human sources to provide context to and illumination for Biblical interpretation, we reject that any source outside the established Protestant Cannon of Scripture is or ever will be considered to posses the ultimate authority of Scripture.
  5. We must interpret Scripture according to Scripture, meaning that the supreme authority in interpreting the meaning of a particular part of the Bible is the overall teaching of the Bible.
  6. When seeking to interpret Biblical passages that are obscure on a given issue, we must whenever possible do so by use of Biblical passages that are more clear on that particular issue.
  7. Although there are parts of Scripture that appear to be contradictory to other parts, God must not be found to be inconsistent or in error.  Therefore wherever possible the interpreter should attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction through application of sound interpretative means.  For those cases that elude human resolution we must trust that the answer will be found at “the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring” (Charles Spurgeon).
  8. Scripture must be interpreted to the greatest extent possible as its literal meaning (sensus literalis), within context of the type of literature, historical circumstances and other relevant Biblical passages.  Thus parables are to be interpreted as parables, symbols as symbols, poetry as poetry, historical narrative as historical narrative, metaphor as metaphor, etc.
  9. When seeking to condense Scriptural teaching into doctrines we must be guided by those passages that explicitly teach on the issue in question as opposed to those passages that implicitly address the issue.

Some of these axiomatic principles will be more easily applied than others.  However, if we start from the common belief that God’s Word is both true and trustworthy, then these axiomatic principles would seem to be sound.

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