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Bridging the Gap From the Biblical Text From “Then” to “Now”

1 Triangle, 3 Corners, 4 T’s

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By Tim Challies

Every word of the Bible was written at a certain time and in a certain context. Even the most recent of those times and the nearest of those contexts is at a great distance from us in time and space. Thus, when we read the Bible, we have to determine how those words apply to us today in our very different times and very different contexts. It is not always a simple task.

TTTT1We have all seen situations—and many of us have caused situations—where we have been sloppy in going from the text to today. The young man who marches three times around a young woman and waits for her walls of romantic resistance to crumble is not properly understanding how to go from the text to today. Similarly, the muscleman who tears a phone book in half while quoting, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is not properly accounting for the context of that verse.

There are different ways Christians attempt to get from the text to today in ways that are faithful and accurate. I’m going to borrow from my friend James Seward and display one of these ways with a triangle that has four T’s on it. Look at figure 1 and you’ll see it: One triangle, three corners, four T’s.

TTTT2We will begin with the right side of the triangle. Let’s let the top corner represent our text—any text within the Bible. The bottom-right corner will represent today. You can see this in figure 2. What we are prone to do is to hurry our way from the text to today, just like that young man and that muscleman. We underestimate or under-appreciate our cultural and chronological distance from the text and are too quick to assume we know how to apply the text to our lives today. We sometimes get it right, but often we do not. Every Christian acknowledges this as a potential problem and different traditions attempt to deal with it in different ways.

I am convinced that the most faithful way to deal with it leads us to the bottom-left corner of the triangle. The TT down there stands for them/then—the people for whom the words were originally written (see figure 3). What if, instead of going straight from the text to today we go from the text, to them/then, and only then to today? In this way, before we apply the text to ourselves, we attempt to understand what the words meant to those who first heard them. So when Paul wrote the church in Philippi and said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” what did he mean? What did he mean to communicate to them/then? Once we have established what the text meant to them/then, we can more accurately apply it to ourselves—to us/now.

TTTT3How can we go from the text to them/then? Broadly, through prayer, through meditation, and through study. We pray and ask the Holy Spirit to illumine the text so we rightly understand it; we meditate on the text, expecting that God will reward this deep contemplation with greater understanding; we study the text through cross-references, word studies, sentence diagraming, commentaries and other resources. We do all of this to understand what the text meant to the original recipients.

Once we have done that—once we have a solid understanding of what the text meant to them/then, we are prepared to visit the third corner of the rectangle. Now we take what we have learned and we ask how it is meant to impact us today. How do we do this? Largely through prayer and meditation, though some further study may be involved. Now we pray and ask God to show us how he can apply his truth to the specifics of our lives and times; we continue to meditate on the text, looking for immediate application, and still trusting that God will use our deep contemplation to give us insights into his Word. You can see this all in figure 4.

TTTT4In his book Expositional Preaching, David Helm gives an example of how he, an experienced preacher, was too quick to go from the text to today. He had determined that he would preach 2 Corinthians 8-9 at time when his church needed a financial boost. Even before he began his sermon preparation he knew what he would say—he had a major theme, he had an outline, and everything else he needed to make a great, Bible-based appeal for money. But as he dove into the text he realized that his understanding of the text was too simple: this text isn’t about regular and cheerful giving to meet the church budget, but about a famine relief collection for churches full of Jewish Christians. He came to see that this collection was meant to serve as a test of these Corinthian Christians so that if they gave generously, it would show that they aligned with Paul and the gospel over against the so-called super-apostles. When he went from the text to today he had one sermon, but when he went from the text to them/then to today he had a very different one, and one that more faithfully understood the original meaning of the text. I suspect almost every preacher—every expositional preacher, at least—has had a similar experience at one time or another.

A couple of weeks ago I quoted David Helm and his concern with lectio divina. His concern is exactly this—that lectio divina may too quickly move from the top of the triangle to the bottom-right. It moves from one corner to the other through prayer, meditation and contemplation, but in all of that may not adequately account for the distance between the text and today. This is true, at least, when lectio divina is done apart from serious study and serious work in the text prior to that contemplation. On the other hand, people who value study may be too reliant on their effort while short-changing both prayer and meditation (and I put myself squarely in this camp). And this is why I find this simple triangle so helpful. In three corners and four little T’s it helps us move from the text to today in a way that faithfully captures what God means to communicate to us.

Source: http://www.challies.com (June 2, 2014).

 

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DAVID JEREMIAH: 7 Ways To Study The Bible Effectively

David Jeremiah SB

(1) READ IT – Find time every day to read the Bible. Build this into your routine each morning, Pray as you read, asking God for insight.

(2) LOOK FOR A NEW VERSE EACH DAY – As you read, ask God for a special verse to meet that day’s need. Read until you arrive at that verse, and then write down and carry it with you. You’ll discover new strength!

(3) STUDY BOOK-TO-VERSE-TO-WORD – One of the best methods of Bible study is book-to-verse-to-word, some times called inductive Bible study. Choose the book you want to study, then read through the book introduction and the Bible text several times for a sweep of its contents. Then read all you can about the background of that book. Next…

(4) LOOK FOR THE OUTLINE OR THEME OF THE BOOK – After that, you’re ready to study chapter by chapter. Read through each chapter, making notes, underlining verses, and looking for key thoughts. When you have a good idea of what each chapter says, study the individual verses themselves, down to the various words that are used. Then…

(5) READ THE BIBLE WITH PEN IN HAND – Underline, circle, and draw lines from verse to verse. Thoroughly read (A good study Bible – like the Jeremiah Study Bible) notes and their cross references. Scribble comments and insights in the margins, and post dates besides verses that God gives you on particular days. Someone once said, “A well-marked Bible means a well-fed soul.” You can also use a journal to analyze sentences, paraphrase verses, and condense passages, list points, and record observations.

(6) MEMORIZE SCRIPTURE AND MEDITATE ON IT – Memorized Scripture is the fodder for meditation, and meditating on God’s Word opens the door of our hearts to the real riches of Scripture. When we memorize God’s Word, we can think about it all the time, mulling it over as we eat breakfast, as we drive to work, as we fall asleep at night. We digest its meaning, and it becomes part of us.

(7) JOIN A BIBLE STUDY GROUP – One of the most exciting developments in many churches has been the proliferation of Bible study groups. Find a good group and sign up. The right small group can make a big difference in your appreciation of Scripture.

SOURCE: *Adapted from “Ways To Study The Bible Effectively” in The Jeremiah Study Bible. Worthy Media, 2013. xv.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Jeremiah

Dr. David Jeremiah is the senior pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, California, and chancellor of San Diego Christian College. He is also the founder of Turning Point, a ministry committed to providing sound Bible teaching through national radio and television broadcasting. Dr. Jeremiah has authored numerous books, including the best-selling “Captured by Grace,” “Life Wide Open,” “My Heart’s Desire,” and “Sanctuary.”

 

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Dr. R.C. Sproul on Why Study the Bible?

Compelling Reasons For Studying the Bible by Dr. R.C. Sproul

Why study the Bible? It may seem odd and foolish to raise this question since you probably would not be reading this book unless you were already convinced that Bible study is necessary. Our best intentions, however, are often weakened by our moods and caprice. Bible study often falls by the way. So, before we examine the practical guidelines for Bible study, let’s review some of the compelling reasons for studying the Bible at all.

TWO MYTHS

First, we will look at some of the reasons people give for not studying the Bible. These “reasons” often contain myths that are passed off as truisms through much repetition. The myth that claims first place in our hall of excuses is the idea that the Bible is too difficult for the ordinary person to understand.

Myth 1—The Bible is so difficult to understand that only highly skilled theologians with technical training can deal with the Scriptures.

This myth has been repeated many times by sincere people: “I know I can’t study the Bible, because every time I try to read it, I can’t understand it.” When some people say this, they may want to hear, “That’s all right. I understand. It’s really a difficult book, and unless you’ve had seminary training, maybe you shouldn’t try to tackle it.” Or perhaps they want to hear, “I know, it’s too heavy, too deep, too profound. I commend you for your tireless efforts, your strenuous labors in trying to solve the mystifying riddle of God’s Word. It is sad that God has chosen to speak to us in such obscure and esoteric language that only scholars can grasp it.” This, I am afraid, is what many of us want to hear. We feel guilty and want to quiet our consciences for neglecting our duty as Christians.

When we express this myth, we do it with astonishing ease. The myth is so often repeated that we do not expect it to be challenged. Yet we know that as mature, educated adults we can understand the basic message of the Bible. Indeed, the scholars who drafted and signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982) affirm “that a person is not dependent for understanding of Scripture on the expertise of biblical scholars.” If we can read the newspaper or blogs, we can read the Bible. In fact, I would venture to guess that more difficult words and concepts are expressed on the front page of a newspaper than on most pages of the Bible.

Myth 2—The Bible is boring.

If we press people for an explanation for what they mean when they express the first myth, usually they respond by saying, “Well, I guess I can understand it, but frankly the book bores me to death.” This statement reflects not so much an inability to understand what is read as a taste and preference for what we find interesting and exciting.

The preponderance of boredom that people experience with the Bible came home to me when I was hired to teach the Scriptures in required Bible courses at a Christian college. The president of the institution phoned me and said, “We need someone young and exciting, someone with a dynamic method who will be able to ‘make the Bible come alive.’ ” While I knew what the president was getting at, I nevertheless wanted to say, “You want me to make the Bible come alive? I didn’t know that it had died. In fact, I never even heard that it was ill. Who was the attending physician at the Bible’s demise?” No, I can’t make the Bible come alive for anyone. The Bible is already alive. It makes me come alive.

When people say the Bible is dull, it makes me wonder why. Biblical characters are full of life. There is a unique quality of passion about them. Their lives reveal drama, pathos, lust, crime, devotion and every conceivable aspect of human existence. There is rebuke, remorse, contrition, consolation, practical wisdom, philosophical reflection and, most of all, truth. Perhaps the dullness some experience is due to the antiquity and cultural distance of the material. How does the life of Abraham or of Timothy—lived so long ago and so far away—relate to us? But the characters of biblical history are real. Though their life settings are different from ours, their struggles and concerns are very much like ours.

THE CLARITY OF SCRIPTURE

In the sixteenth century the Reformers declared their total confidence in what they called the perspicuity of Scripture. What they meant by that technical term was the clarity of Scripture. They maintained that the Bible is basically clear and lucid. It is simple enough for any literate person to understand its basic message. This is not to say that all parts of the Bible are equally clear or that there are no difficult passages or sections to be found in it. Laypeople unskilled in the ancient languages and the fine points of exegesis may have difficulty with parts of Scripture, but the essential content is clear enough to be understood easily. Martin Luther, for example, was convinced that what was obscure and difficult in one part of Scripture was stated more clearly and simply in other parts of Scripture.

Some parts of the Bible are so clear and simple that they are offensive to those suffering from intellectual arrogance. I once was lecturing about how Christ’s death on the cross fulfilled the curse motif of the Old Testament. In the middle of my lecture a man in the audience interrupted me, saying loudly, “That’s primitive and obscene.” I asked him to repeat his comment so that everyone present could hear his complaint. When he repeated it, I said, “You are exactly right. I particularly like your choice of words, primitive and obscene.” The entire history of redemption is communicated in primitive terms, from the episode of the encounter of Adam and Eve with the serpent to the devastating destruction that God visits on the chariots of Egypt in the exodus to the crass and brutal murder of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible reveals that God hears the groans of all of his people, from the peasant to the philosopher, from the dull-witted to the sophisticated scholar. His message is simple enough for the most simplistic of his fallen creatures to understand. What kind of a God would reveal his love and redemption in terms so technical and concepts so profound that only an elite corps of professional scholars could understand them?

God does speak in primitive terms because he is addressing himself to primitives. At the same time, there is enough profundity contained in Scripture to keep the most astute and erudite scholars busily engaged in their theological inquiries for a lifetime.

If primitive is an appropriate word to describe the content of Scripture, obscene is even more so. All of the obscenities of sin are recorded with clear and forthright language in the Scripture. And what is more obscene than the cross? Here we have obscenity on a cosmic scale. On the cross Christ takes upon himself human obscenities in order to redeem them.

If you have been one of those who have clung to the myths of dullness or difficulty, perhaps it is because you have attributed to the whole of Scripture what you have found in some of its parts. Maybe some passages have been peculiarly difficult and obscure. Other passages may have left you bewildered and baffled. Perhaps those should be left for the scholars to unravel. If you find certain portions of the Scripture difficult and complex, need you insist that the whole of Scripture is boring and dull?

Biblical Christianity is not an esoteric religion. Its content is not concealed in vague symbols that require some sort of special “insight” to grasp. There is no special intellectual prowess or spiritual gift that is necessary to under stand the basic message of Scripture. You may find that in Eastern religions where insight is limited to some guru who lives in a shanty high in the Himalayas. Maybe the guru has been thunderstruck by the gods with some profound mystery of the universe. You travel to inquire and he tells you in a hushed whisper that the meaning of life is the sound of “one hand clapping.” That’s esoteric. That’s so esoteric that even the guru does not understand it. He cannot understand it because it’s an absurdity. Absurdities often sound profound because they are incapable of being understood. When we hear things we do not understand, sometimes we think they are simply too deep or weighty for us to grasp when in fact they are merely unintelligible statements like “one hand clapping.” The Bible does not talk like that. The Bible speaks of God in meaningful patterns of speech. Some of those patterns may be more difficult than others, but they are not meant to be nonsense statements that only a guru can fathom.

 THE PROBLEM OF MOTIVATION

It is important to note that the theme of this book is not how to read the Bible but how to study the Bible. There is a great deal of difference between reading and studying. Reading is something we can do in a leisurely way, something that can be done strictly for entertainment in a casual manner. But study suggests labor, serious and diligent work.

Here then is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.

Karl Barth (1886-1968), the famous Swiss theologian, once wrote that all human sin finds its roots in three basic human problems. He included pride (hubris), dishonesty and slothfulness in his list of rudimentary sins. None of these basic evils is instantly eradicated by spiritual regeneration. As Christians we must struggle against these problems through our entire pilgrimage. None of us is immune. If we are going to deal with the discipline of Bible study, we must recognize at the outset that we will need the grace of God to persevere.

The problem of slothfulness has been with us since the curse of the Fall. Our labor is now mixed with sweat. Weeds are easier to grow than grass. Newspapers are easier to read than the Bible is to study. The curse of labor is not magically removed simply because our task is the study of Scripture.

When I lecture to groups on the theme of studying the Bible, I often ask how many of the group members have been Christians for one year or more. Then I ask those people how many have read the entire Bible from cover to cover. In every instance, the overwhelming majority answer in the negative. I would venture to guess that among those who have been Christians for a year or more, at least 80 percent have never read the whole Bible. How is that possible? Only an appeal to the radical Fall of the human race could begin to answer that question. If you have read the whole Bible, you are in a small minority of Christian people.

If you have studied the Bible, you are in an even smaller minority. Isn’t it amazing that almost everyone living in the West has an opinion to offer about the Bible, and yet so few have really studied it? Sometimes it seems as though the only people who take the time to study it are those with the sharpest axes to grind against it. Many people study it to find possible loopholes so they can get out from under the weight of its authority.

Biblical ignorance is not limited to laypeople by any means. I have sat on church boards responsible for the examination of seminarians preparing for the pastoral ministry. The degree of biblical ignorance manifested by many of these students is appalling. Seminary curricula have not done much to alleviate the problem. Every year many churches ordain people who are virtually ignorant of the content of Scripture.

I was shocked when I took a test in biblical knowledge for entrance to the theological seminary from which I graduated. After I completed my exam, I was deeply embarrassed, ashamed to hand in my paper. I had taken several courses in college that I thought would prepare me for such a test, but when the test came I was not ready. I left question after question blank and was certain that I had failed. When the grades were posted, I discovered that I had received one of the highest grades in a group of seventy-five students. Even with the grades scaled, there were several students who scored less than 10 out of a possible grade of 100. My score was poor, yet it was one of the best of the bad.

Biblical illiteracy among the clergy has become so prevalent that I often find pastors getting annoyed and angry when their parishioners ask them to teach them the Bible. In many cases pastors live in mortal fear that their ignorance will be exposed by being thrust into a situation where they are expected to teach the Bible.

THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR BIBLE STUDY

The Bible itself has much to say about the importance of studying the Bible. We will examine two passages, one from each Testament, in order to catch a glimpse of these mandates.

In Deuteronomy 6 we find a passage that was familiar to every Jew of the Old Testament. Its words were used to call the assembly together for worship. We read: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (vv. 4-5). Most of us are familiar with these words. But what follows them immediately? Read on:

“These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (vv. 6-9).

Here God sovereignly commands that his Word be taught so diligently that it penetrates the heart. The content of that Word is not to be mentioned casually and infrequently. Repeated discussion is the order of the day, every day. The call to bind on the hand, the forehead, the doorpost and gate makes it clear that God is saying that the job must be done by whatever method it takes.

Looking at the New Testament we read Paul’s admonition to Timothy:

“You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:14-17).

This exhortation is so basic to our understanding of the importance of Bible study that it warrants a careful scrutiny.

“Continue in the things you have learned” (v. 14). This part of the admonition lays the accent on continuity. Our study of Scripture is not to be a once-for-all matter. There is no room for the proverbial once-over-lightly. Consistency is necessary for a sound basis of biblical studies.

“Sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation” (v. 15). Paul refers to the Scripture’s ability to give wisdom. When the Bible speaks of wisdom, it refers to a special kind of wisdom. The term is not used to connote an ability to be “worldly wise” or to have the cleverness necessary to write a Poor Richard’s Almanack.

In biblical terms, wisdom has to do with the practical matter of learning how to live a life that is pleasing to God. A cursory glance at the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament makes this emphasis abundantly clear. Proverbs, for example, tells us that wisdom begins with the “fear of the LORD” (Prov 1:7; 9:10). That fear is not a servile fear but a posture of awe and reverence, which is necessary for authentic godliness. The Old Testament distinguishes between wisdom and knowledge. We are commanded to acquire knowledge, but more to acquire wisdom. Knowledge is necessary if wisdom is to be gained, but it is not identical with wisdom. A person can have knowledge without having wisdom, but he or she cannot have wisdom without having knowledge. A person without knowledge is ignorant. A person without wisdom is deemed a fool. In biblical terms foolishness is a moral matter and receives the judgment of God. Wisdom in the highest sense is being wise with respect to salvation. Thus wisdom is a theological matter. Paul is saying that through the Scriptures we can acquire that kind of wisdom that concerns our ultimate fulfillment and destiny as human beings.

“Knowing from whom you have learned them” (v. 14). Who is this “whom” Paul is talking about? Is he referring to Timothy’s grandmother? Or to Paul himself? These options are doubtful. Whom refers to the ultimate source of the knowledge Timothy has acquired, namely, God. This comes out more clearly in the statement “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

“Scripture is inspired by God” (v. 16). This passage has been the focal point of volumes of theological literature that describe and analyze theories of biblical inspiration. The crucial word in the passage is the Greek term theopneustos, which is often translated by the phrase “inspired by God.” The term more precisely means “God-breathed,” which refers not so much to God’s breathing something “in” as to his breathing something “out.” Rather than the term inspiration, we may be better advised to render the Greek by the English expiration. In that case we would see the significance of the passage not so much in providing us with a theory of inspiration—a theory of how God transmitted his Word through human authors—but rather a statement of the origin or source of Scripture. What Paul is saying to Timothy is that the Bible comes from God. He is its ultimate author. It is his word; it comes from him; it carries the weight of all that he is. Thus the injunction to remember “from whom you have learned them [these things].”

“Scripture is profitable for teaching” (v. 16). One of the most important priorities Paul mentions is the preeminent way in which the Bible profits us. The first and indeed foremost profit is the profit of teaching or instruction. We may pick up the Bible and be “inspired” or moved to tears or other poignant emotions. But our greatest profit is in being instructed. Again, our instruction is not in matters of how to build a house or how to multiply and divide or how to employ the science of differential equations; rather we are instructed in the things of God. This instruction is called “profitable” because God himself places an extremely high value on it. The instruction is assigned worth and significance.

Countless times I have heard Christians say, “Why do I need to study doctrine or theology when all I need to know is Jesus?” My immediate reply is, “Who is Jesus?” As soon as we begin to answer this question, we are involved in doctrine and theology. No Christian can avoid theology. Every Christian is a theologian. Perhaps not a theologian in the technical or professional sense, but a theologian nevertheless. The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians. A good theologian is one who is instructed by God.

“Scripture is profitable for reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (v. 16). In these words Paul articulates the practical value of Bible study. As fallen creatures we sin, we err, and we are inherently out of shape with respect to righteousness. When we sin, we need to be reproved. When we err, we need to be corrected. When we are out of shape, we need to go into training. The Scriptures function as our chief reprover, our chief corrector and our chief trainer. The bookstores of this world are filled with books on training methods to acquire excellence in sports, to lose weight and get our physical figures into shape, and to acquire skills in all areas. Libraries have stacks of books written to teach us financial management and the nuances of wise investment policies. We can find many books that will teach us how to turn our losses into profits, our liabilities into assets. But where are the books that will train us in righteousness? The question still remains, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Mt 16:26).

“That the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (v. 17). The Christian who is not diligently involved in a serious study of Scripture is simply inadequate as a disciple of Christ. To be an adequate Christian and competent in the things of God we must do more than attend “sharing sessions” and “bless me parties.” We cannot learn competency by osmosis. Biblically illiterate Christians are not only inadequate but unequipped. In fact, they are inadequate because they are not equipped. An NFL star may be able to run barefoot, but when playing a league opponent he will be sure to wear cleats.

THE BIBLE AS REVELATION

One of the most important advantages the Bible gives us is that it provides information that is not available anywhere else. Our universities provide us with a wealth of knowledge acquired by human investigation of the natural world. We learn by observation, analysis and abstract speculation. We compare and contrast varied opinions from notable scholars. But with all the skills of knowledge that we have at our disposal in this world, there is no one who can speak to us from a transcendent perspective, no one who can reason with us, as the philosophers say, sub species aeternitatis (from the eternal perspective).

Only God can provide us with an eternal perspective and speak to us with absolute and final authority. The advantage of the equipment provided by Scripture is that knowledge is made available to us that can be learned from no other source. The Scripture does, of course, talk of matters that can be learned by other means. We are not utterly dependent on the New Testament to learn who Caesar Augustus was or how far it is from Jerusalem to Bethany. But the world’s best geographer cannot show us the way to God, and the world’s best psychiatrist cannot give us a final answer to the problem of our guilt. There are matters contained in Holy Writ that “unveil” for us that which is not exposed to the natural course of human investigation.

Though much can be learned about God from a study of nature, it is his self-revelation in Scripture that is most complete and most valuable for us. There is an analogy between how we get to know people in this world and how we become acquainted with God. If we want to learn something about a human being, let’s say Bill Monroe, there are many ways we can go about it. We could do a search on the Internet, perhaps first Googling his name. If we had the right connections, we might ask the FBI or the CIA for their files on him. We could send for his high school and college transcripts. Through such records we might discover his basic biographical history, medical record, academic and athletic achievement records. We could then interview his friends to get a more personal evaluation. But all these methods are indirect, and many of Bill’s intangible qualities will remain obscured to our scrutiny. All these methods are but secondary sources of information.

If we want more accurate knowledge of Bill Monroe, we should meet him personally, observe his outward appearance, see how he behaves, what mannerisms he employs. We may even be able to guess how he is feeling, what he is thinking, what he values and what displeases him. But if we want to gain intimate knowledge of him we have to engage in some kind of verbal communication with him. No one can express more clearly or more accurately what he believes, feels or thinks than Bill himself. Unless Bill chooses to reveal those things verbally, our knowledge will be limited to guesswork and speculation. Only words will enlighten us.

Likewise, when we speak about the concept of revelation, we are talking about the basic principle of self-disclosure. The Scriptures come to us as divine self-disclosure. Here the mind of God is laid bare on many matters. With a knowledge of Scripture we do not have to rely on secondhand information or bare speculation to learn who God is and what he values. In the Bible he reveals himself.

THEORY AND PRACTICE

Like the Christian who shuns theology, there are those who despise any kind of quest for theoretical knowledge of God, insisting instead on being “practical.” The spirit of America has been defined as the spirit of pragmatism. This spirit is manifested nowhere more clearly than in the arena of politics and in the public school system, which has been informed by the principles and methods of education set down by John Dewey.

Pragmatism may be defined simply as the approach to reality that defines truth as “that which works.” The pragmatist is concerned about results, and the results determine the truth. The problem with this kind of thinking, if left uninformed by the eternal perspective, is that the results tend to be judged in terms of short-range goals.

I experienced this dilemma when my daughter enrolled in kindergarten. She attended a very progressive public school outside of Boston. After a few weeks we received notification from the school that the principal was holding an open meeting for parents in order to explain the program and procedures employed in the kindergarten. At the meeting the principal carefully explained the daily schedule. He said, “Don’t be alarmed if your child comes home and tells you that he was playing with puzzles or modeling clay in school. I can assure you that everything in the daily routine is done with a purpose. From 9:00 to 9:17 a.m. the children play with puzzles that are carefully designed by orthopedic experts to develop the motor muscles of the last three fingers of the left hand.” He went on to explain how every minute of the child’s day was planned with skilled precision to insure that everything was done with a purpose. I was duly impressed.

At the end of his presentation the principal asked for questions. I raised my hand and said, “I am deeply impressed by the careful planning that has gone into this program. I can see that everything is done with a purpose in view. My question is, How do you decide which ‘purposes’ to employ? What final purpose do you use to decide the individual purposes? What is the overall purpose of your purposes? In other words, what kind of a child are you trying to produce?”

The man turned white and then scarlet, and in stumbling terms he replied, “I don’t know; no one ever asked me that question.” I appreciated the candor of his reply and the genuine humility it displayed, yet at the same time, his answer terrified me.

In Your Mind Matters John Stott writes: The modern world breeds pragmatists, whose first question about any idea is not “Is it true?” but “Does it work?” Young people tend to be activists, dedicated supporters of a cause, though without always inquiring too closely whether their cause is a good end to pursue or whether their action is the best means by which to pursue it.

How can we have purposes without purpose? Where can we go to discover the ultimate test for our pragmatism? Here is where transcendent revelation is most critical to our lives. Here is where the content of Scripture is most relevant for our practice. God alone can give us the final evaluation of wisdom and value of our practices.

People who despise theory and call themselves practical are not wise. Those who concern themselves only with short-term goals may have big trouble when it comes to the very long run of eternity. It must also be added that there is no practice without some underlying theory. We do what we do because we have a theory, even if only implicit, about the value of doing it. Nothing betrays our deepest theories more eloquently than our practice. We may never think seriously about our theories or subject them to rigorous critical analysis, but we all have them. As in the case of the Christian who wants Christ without theology, so the person who wants practice without theory will usually wind up with bad theories that lead to bad practice.

Because the theories found in Scripture proceed from God, the Bible is eminently practical. Nothing could be more practical than God’s Word because it proceeds from a theory that is established from the eternal perspective. The fatal weakness of pragmatism is overcome by revelation.

THE SENSUOUS CHRISTIAN

The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the public embrace of the “sensuous.” The Sensuous Woman, The Sensuous Man, The Sensuous Couple and The Sensuous Divorcee became bestsellers, and some remain in print decades later! One dictionary defines sensuous as, “pertaining to the senses or sensible objects: highly susceptible to influence through the senses.” In other words, sensuous people live by their feelings rather than through their understanding. Today on television we can see this sensuality prominently displayed. Famous TV talk-show hosts often encourage their guests to “vent,” exposing their private feelings and emotions to millions of viewers.

Sadly, this kind of sensuality has also wormed its way into the church. Many of us have become sensuous Christians, living by our feelings rather than through our understanding of the Word of God. Sensuous Christians cannot be moved to service, prayer or study unless they “feel like it.” Their Christian life is only as effective as the intensity of present feelings. When they experience spiritual euphoria, they are a whirlwind of godly activity; when they are depressed, they are a spiritual incompetent. They constantly seek new and fresh spiritual experiences, and use them to determine the Word of God. Their “inner feelings” become the ultimate test of truth.

Sensuous Christians don’t need to study the Word of God because they already know the will of God by their feelings. They don’t want to know God; they want to experience him. Sensuous Christians equate “childlike faith” with ignorance. They think that when the Bible calls us to childlike faith, it means a faith without content, a faith without understanding. They don’t know the Bible says, “In evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20). They don’t realize that Paul tells us again and again, “My beloved brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (Romans 11:25).

Sensuous Christians go their merry way until they encounter the pain of life that is not so merry—and they fold. They usually end up embracing a kind of “relational theology” (a curse on modern Christianity) where personal relationships and experience take precedence over the Word of God. If the Scripture calls us to action that may jeopardize a personal relationship, then the Scripture must be compromised. The highest law of sensuous Christians is that bad feelings must be avoided at all cost.

The Bible is addressed primarily, though not exclusively, to our understanding. That means the mind. This is difficult to communicate to modern Christians who are living in what may be the most anti-intellectual period of Western civilization. Notice, I did not say anti-academic or anti-technological or anti-scholarly. I said anti-intellectual. There is a strong current of antipathy to the function of the mind in the Christian life.

To be sure, there are historical reasons for this kind of reaction. Many laypeople have felt the result of what one theologian has called “the treason of the intellectual.” So much skepticism, cynicism and negative criticism have spewed forth from the intellectual world of theologians that laypeople have lost their trust in intellectual enterprises. In many cases there is the fear that faith will not hold up under intellectual scrutiny, so the defense becomes the denigration of the human mind. We turn to feelings rather than to our minds to establish and preserve our faith. This is a very serious problem we face in the twenty-first-century church.

Christianity is supremely intellectual though not intellectualistic. That is, Scripture is addressed to the intellect without at the same time embracing a spirit of intellectualism. The Christian life is not to be a life of bare conjecture or cold rationalism but one of vibrant passion. Strong feelings of joy, love and exaltation are called for again and again. But those passionate feelings are a response to what we understand with our minds to be true. When we red in Scripture, “Take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33), “ho hum” is not an appropriate response. We can be of good cheer because we understand that Christ has indeed overcome the world. That thrills our souls and sets our feet to dancing. What is more precious than to experience the sweetness of the presence of Christ or the nearness of the Holy Spirit?

God forbid that we should lose our passion or go through the Christian pilgrimage without any experience of Christ. But what happens when there is a conflict between what God says and what I feel? We must do what God says, like it or not. That is what Christianity is all about.

Reflect for a moment. What happens in your own life when you act according to what you feel like doing rather than what you know and understand God says you should do? Here we encounter the ruthless reality of the difference between happiness and pleasure. How easy it is to confuse the two! The pursuit of happiness is regarded as our “unalienable right.” But happiness and pleasure are not the same thing. Both of them feel good, but only one endures. Sin can bring pleasure, but never happiness. If sin were not so pleasurable, it would hardly represent a temptation. Yet, while sin often “feels good,” it does not produce happiness. If we do not know the difference or, worse yet, do not care about the difference, we have made great strides to becoming the ultimate sensuous Christian.

It is precisely at the point of discerning the difference between pleasure and happiness that knowledge of Scripture is so vital. There is a remarkable relationship between God’s will and human happiness. The fundamental deception of Satan is the lie that obedience can never bring happiness. From the primordial temptation of Adam and Eve to last night’s satanic seduction, the lie has been the same. “If you do what God says, you will not be happy. If you do what I say, you will be ‘liberated’ and know happiness.”

What would have to be true for Satan’s argument to be true? It would seem that God would have to be one of three things: ignorant, malevolent or deceptive. It could be that God’s Word will not work for us because it proceeds from his divine blunderings. God simply doesn’t know enough to tell us what we need to do to achieve happiness. Perhaps he desires our well-being, but simply does not know enough to instruct us properly. He would like to help us out, but the complexities of human life and human situations just boggle his mind.

Perhaps God is infinitely wise and knows what is good for us better than we do. Perhaps he does understand human complexities better than the philosophers, moralists, politicians, school teachers, pastors and psychiatrists, but he hates us. He knows the truth but leads us astray so he can remain the only happy being in the cosmos. Perhaps his law is an expression of his desire to take gleeful delight in our misery. Thus his malevolence toward us leads to the role of great Deceiver. Nonsense! If that were true, then the only conclusion we could come to is that God is the devil and devil is God, and Holy Scripture is really the manual of Satan.

Absurd? Unthinkable? I wish it were. In literally thousands of pastors’ studies, people are being counseled to act against Scripture because the pastor wants them to be happy. “Yes, Mrs. Jones, go ahead and divorce your husband (despite the fact that she is without biblical warrant), for I am sure you will never find happiness married to a man like that.”

If there is a secret, a carefully guarded secret, to human happiness, it is that one expressed in a seventeenth-century catechism that says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” The secret to happiness is found in obedience to God. How can we be happy if we are not obedient? How can we be obedient if we do not know what it is we are to obey? Thus the top and the tail of it is that happiness cannot be fully discovered as long as we remain ignorant of God’s Word.

To be sure, knowledge of God’s Word does not guarantee that we will do what it says, but at least we will know what we are supposed to be doing in our quest for human fulfillment. The issue of faith is not so much whether we believe in God, but whether we believe the God we believe in.

A MATTER OF DUTY

Why should we study the Bible? I have mentioned briefly the practical value, the ethical importance and the way of happiness. We have looked at some of the myths that are given why people do not study the Bible. We have examined something of the spirit of pragmatism and the anti-intellectual climate of our day. There are many facets to the question and countless reasons why we ought to study the Bible.

I could plead with you to study the Bible for personal edification; I could try the art of persuasion to stimulate your quest for happiness. I could say that the study of the Bible would probably be the most fulfilling and rewarding educational experience of your life. I could cite numerous reasons why you would benefit from a serious study of Scripture. But ultimately the main reason why we should study the Bible is because it is our duty.

If the Bible were the most boring book in the world—dull, uninteresting and seemingly irrelevant—it would still be our duty to study it. If its literary style were awkward and confusing, the duty would remain. We live as human beings under an obligation by divine mandate to study diligently God’s Word. He is our Sovereign, it is his Word, and He commands that we study it. A duty is not an option. If you have not yet begun to respond to that duty, then you need to ask God to forgive you and to resolve to do your duty from this day forth.

About the Author: Dr. R.C. Sproul (Founder of Ligonier Ministries; Seminary Professor; and Teaching Pastor at Saint Andrews in Sanford, Florida) is an amazingly gifted communicator. Whether he is teaching, preaching, or writing – he has the ability to make the complex easy to understand. He has been used more than any other person in my life to deepen my walk with Christ and help me to be more God-centered than man-centered. His book the Holiness of God has been the most influential book in my life – outside of the Bible. The article above is adapted from Chapter One in another one of his excellent books: Knowing Scripture. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009. Knowing Scripture is an excellent introductory book on how to read, study, and interpret the Bible.

 

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Dr. D.A. Carson on 12 Principles of Biblical Interpretation

MUST I LEARN HOW TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE?

 by D. A. Carson

Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over ―interpretation, not just over ―interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics than in the interpretation of the Bible—the very Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. On the other hand, rather ironically there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they themselves offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don‘t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don‘t. For the fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations; there are faithful interpretations and there are unfaithful interpretations. But there is no escape from interpretation.

This is not the place to lay out foundational principles, or to wrestle with the ―new hermeneutic (now becoming long in the tooth) and with ―radical hermeneutics and ―postmodern hermeneutics. [For more information and bibliography on these topics, and especially their relation to postmodernism and how to respond to it, see my book The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, esp. chaps. 2 and 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996 – in this article will be referred to as GOG).] I shall focus instead on one ―simple problem, one with which every serious Bible reader is occasionally confronted. The issue is this: What parts of the Bible are binding mandates for us, and what parts are not?

Consider some examples. “Greet one another with a holy kiss: the French do it, Arab believers do it, but by and large we do not. Are we therefore unbiblical? Jesus tells his disciples that they should wash one another‘s feet (John 13:14), yet most of us have never done so. Why do we “disobey” that plain injunction, yet obey his injunction regarding the Lord‘s Table (“This do, in remembrance of me)? If we find reasons to be flexible about the “holy kiss (GOG, 19), how flexible may we be in other domains? May we replace the bread and wine at the Lord‘s Supper with yams and goat‘s milk if we are in a village church in Papua New Guinea? If not, why not? And what about the broader questions circulating among theonomists regarding the continuing legal force of law set down under the Mosaic covenant? Should we as a nation, on the assumption that God graciously grants widespread revival and reformation, pass laws to execute adulterers by stoning? If not, why not? Is the injunction for women to keep silent in the church absolute (1 Cor. 14:33–36)? If not, why not? Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom; he tells the rich young man that he is to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Why do we make the former demand absolute for all persons, and apparently fudge a little on the second?

Obviously I have raised enough questions for a dissertation or two. What follows in this article is not a comprehensive key to answering all difficult interpretive questions, but some preliminary guidelines to sorting such matters out. The apostolic number of points that follow are not put into any order of importance.

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

Liberals have often provided us with nasty disjunctions: Jesus or Paul, the charismatic community or the ―early catholic‖ church, and so forth. Protestants sometimes drop a wedge between Paul‘s faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28) and James‘s faith and works (Jas. 2:4); others absolutize Gal. 3:28 as if it were the controlling passage on all matters to do with women, and spend countless hours explaining away 1 Tim. 2:12 (or the reverse!).

Historically, many Reformed Baptists in England between the middle of the eighteenth century and the middle of the twentieth so emphasized God‘s sovereign grace in election that they became uncomfortable with general declarations of the gospel. Unbelievers should not be told to repent and believe the gospel: how could that be, since they are dead in trespasses and sin, and may not in any case belong to the elect? They should rather be encouraged to examine themselves to see if they have within themselves any of the first signs of the Spirit‘s work, any conviction of sin, any stirrings of shame. On the face of it, this is a long way from the Bible, but a large number of churches thought it was the hallmark of faithfulness. What has gone wrong, of course, is that the balance of Scripture has been lost. One element of biblical truth has been elevated to a position where it is allowed to destroy or domesticate some other element of biblical truth.

In fact, the “balance of Scripture” is not an easy thing to maintain, in part because there are different kinds of balance in Scripture. For example, there is the balance of diverse responsibilities laid on us (e.g. praying, being reliable at work, being a biblically faithful spouse and parent, evangelizing a neighbor, taking an orphan or widow under our wing, and so forth): these amount to balancing priorities within the limits of time and energy. There is the balance of Scripture‘s emphases as established by observing their relation to the Bible‘s central plot-line (more on this in the 12th point); there is also the balance of truths which we cannot at this point ultimately reconcile, but which we can easily distort if do not listen carefully to the text (e.g. Jesus is both God and man; God is both the transcendent sovereign and yet personal; the elect alone are saved, and yet in some sense God loves horrible rebels so much that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and God cries, “Turn, turn, why will you die? For the Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked). In each case, a slightly different kind of biblical balance comes into play, but there is no escaping the fact that biblical balance is what we need.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

Of course, there are absolute antitheses in Scripture that must not be watered down in any way. For example, the disjunctions between the curses and the blessings in Deut. 27–28 are not mutually delimiting: the conduct that calls down the curses of God and the conduct that wins his approval stand in opposite camps, and must not be intermingled or diluted. But on the other hand, when eight centuries before Christ, God says, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6), the sacrifical system of the Mosaic covenant is not thereby being destroyed. Rather, the Hebrew antithesis is a pointed way of saying, “If push comes to shove, mercy is more important than sacrifice. Whatever you do, you must not rank the marks of formal religion—in this case, burnt offerings and other mandated ritual sacrifices—with fundamental acknowledgment of God, or confuse the extent to which God cherishes compassion and mercy with the firmness with which he demands the observance of the formalities of the sacrificial system” (GOG, 20).

Similarly, when Jesus insists that if anyone is to become his disciple, he must hate his parents (Lk. 14:26), we must not think Jesus is sanctioning raw hatred of family members. What is at issue is that the claims of Jesus are more urgent and binding than even the most precious and prized human relationships (as the parallel in Mt. 10:37 makes clear).

Sometimes the apparent antithesis is formed by comparing utterances from two distant passages. On the one hand, Jesus insists that the praying of his followers should not be like the babbling of the pagans who think they are heard because of their many words (Mt. 6:7). On the other hand, Jesus can elsewhere tell a parable with the pointed lesson that his disciples should pray perseveringly and not give up (Lk. 18:1–8). Yet if we imagine that the formal clash between these two injunctions is more than superficial, we betray not only our ignorance of Jesus‘ preaching style, but also our insensitivity to pastoral demands. The first injunction is vital against those who think they can wheedle things out of God by their interminable prayers; the second is vital against those whose spiritual commitments are so shallow that their mumbled one-liners constitute the whole of their prayer life.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding. The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied. When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake.

That is why the famous “baptism for the dead passage (1 Cor.15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church. Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative.

This principle also underlies one of the reasons why most Christians do not view Christ‘s command to wash one another‘s feet as a third sacrament or ordinance. Baptism and the Lord‘s Supper are certainly treated more than once, and there is ample evidence that the early church observed both, but neither can be said about footwashing. But there is more to be said.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

The purpose of this counsel is not to suggest that if you cannot discern the rationale you should flout the command. It is to insist that God is neither arbitrary nor whimsical, and by and large he provides reasons and structures of thought behind the truths he discloses and the demands he makes. Trying to uncover this rationale can be a help in understanding what is of the essence of what God is saying, and what is the peculiar cultural expression of it.

Before I give a couple of examples, it is important to recognize that all of Scripture is culturally bound. For a start, it is given in human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), and languages are a cultural phenomenon. Nor are the words God speaks to be thought of as, say, generic Greek. Rather, they belong to the Greek of the Hellenistic period (it isn‘t Homeric Greek or Attic Greek or modern Greek). Indeed, this Greek changes somewhat from writer to writer (Paul does not always use words the same way that Matthew does) and from genre to genre (apocalyptic does not sound exactly like an epistle). None of this should frighten us. It is part of the glory of our great God that he has accommodated himself to human speech, which is necessarily time-bound and therefore changing. Despite some postmodern philosophers, this does not jeopardize God‘s capacity for speaking truth. It does mean that we finite human beings shall never know truth exhaustively (that would require omniscience), but there is no reason why we cannot know some truth truly. Nevertheless, all such truth as God discloses to us in words comes dressed in cultural forms. Careful and godly interpretation does not mean stripping away such forms to find absolute truth beneath, for that is not possible: we can never escape our finiteness. It does mean understanding those cultural forms, and by God‘s grace discovering the truth that God has disclosed through them.

So when God commands people to rend their clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, are these precise actions so much of the essence of repentance (GOG, 21) that there is no true repentance without them? When Paul tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss, does he mean that there is no true Christian greeting without such a kiss?

When we examine the rationale for these actions, and ask whether or not ashes and kissing are integratively related to God‘s revelation, we see the way forward. There is no theology of kissing; there is a theology of mutual love and committed fellowship among the members of the church. There is no theology of sackcloth and ashes; there is a theology of repentance that demands both radical sorrow and profound change.

If this reasoning is right, it has a bearing on both footwashing and on head-coverings. Apart from the fact that footwashing appears only once in the New Testament as something commanded by the Lord, the act itself is theologically tied, in John 13, to the urgent need for humility among God‘s people, and to the cross. Similarly, there is no theology of head- coverings, but there is a profound and recurrent theology of that of which the head-coverings were a first-century Corinthian expression: the proper relationships between men and women, between husbands and wives.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive—and pastoral!—errors will inevitably ensue.

Compare these two sayings of Jesus: (a) “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Mt.12:30). (b) “. . . for whoever is not against us is for us(Mk. 9:40; cf. Lk. 9:50). As has often been noted, the sayings are not contradictory if the first is uttered to indifferent people against themselves, and the second to the disciples about others whose zeal outstrips their knowledge. But the two statements are certainly difficult to reconcile if each is taken absolutely, without thinking through such matters.

Or consider two adjacent proverbs in Prov. 26. (a) “Do not answer a fool according to his folly . . .(26:4). (b) “Answer a fool according to his folly . . . (26:5). If these are statutes or examples of case law, there is unavoidable contradiction. On the other hand, the second line of each proverb provides enough of a rationale that we glimpse what we should have seen anyway: proverbs are not statutes. They are distilled wisdom, frequently put into pungent, aphoristic forms that demand reflection, or that describe effects in society at large (but not necessarily in every individual), or that demand consideration of just how and when they apply.

Let us spell out these two proverbs again, this time with the second line included in each case: (a) “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. (b) “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. Side by side as they are, these two proverbs demand reflection on when it is the part of prudence to refrain from answering fools, lest we be dragged down to their level, and when it is the part of wisdom to offer a sharp, “foolish rejoinder that has the effect of pricking the pretensions of the fool. The text does not spell this out explicitly, but if the rationales of the two cases are kept in mind, we will have a solid principle of discrimination.

So when a well-known para-church organization keeps quoting “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it as if it were case law, what are we to think? This proverbial utterance must not be stripped of its force: it is a powerful incentive to responsible, God-fearing, child-rearing. Nevertheless, it is a proverb; it is not a covenantal promise. Nor does it specify at what point the children will be brought into line. Of course, many children from Christian homes go astray because the parents really have been very foolish or unbiblical or downright sinful; but many of us have witnessed the burdens of unnecessary guilt and shame borne by really godly parents when their grown (GOG, 22) children are, say, 40 years of age and demonstrably unconverted. To apply the proverb in such a way as to engender or reinforce such guilt is not only pastorally incompetent, it is hermeneutically incompetent: it is making the Scriptures say something a little different from what can safely be inferred. Aphorisms and proverbs give insight as to how culture under God works, how relationships work, what are priorities should be; they do not put in all the footnotes as to whether there are any individual exceptions, and under what circumstances, and so forth.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between biblical times and our own day.

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves (Rom.13:1–2). Some Christians have reasoned from this passage that we must always submit to the governing authorities, except in matters of conscience before God (Acts 4:19). Even then, we “submitto the authorities by patiently bearing the sanctions they impose on us in this fallen world. Other Christians have reasoned from this passage that since Paul goes on to say that the purpose of rulers is to uphold justice (Rom.13:3–4), then if rulers are no longer upholding justice the time may come when righteous people should oppose them, and even, if necessary, overthrow them. The issues are exceedingly complex, and were thought through in some detail by the Reformers.

But there is of course a new wrinkle added to the fabric of debate when one moves from a totalitarian régime, or from an oligarchy, or from a view of government bound up with an inherited monarchy, to some form of democracy. This is not to elevate democracy to heights it must not occupy. It is to say, rather, that in theory at least a democracy allows you to “overthrow” a government without violence or bloodshed. And if the causes of justice cannot do so, it is because the country as a whole has slid into a miasma that lacks the will, courage, and vision to do what it has the power to do, but chooses not to do (for whatever reason). What, precisely, are the Christian‘s responsibilities in that case (whatever your view of the meaning of Rom.13 in its own context)?

In other words, new social structures beyond anything Paul could have imagined, though they cannot overturn what he said, may force us to see that valid, thoughtful, application demands that we bring into the discussion some considerations he could not have foreseen. It is a great comfort, and epistemologically important, to remember that God did foresee them—but that does not itself reduce the hermeneutical responsibilities we have.

(7) Determine not only how symbols, customs, metaphors, and models function in Scripture, but also to what else they are tied.

We may agree with conclusions already drawn about sackcloth and ashes, and about holy kissing. But is it then acceptable to lead a group of young people in a California church in a celebration of the Lord‘s Table using coke and chips? And how about yams and goat‘s milk in Papua New Guinea? If in the latter case we use bread and wine, are we not subtly insisting that only the food of white foreigners is acceptable to God?

The problem is one not only of churchmanship, but of linguistic theory: Bible translators face it continuously. How should we translate “bread and “wine in the words of institution? Or consider a text such as Isa.1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.Suppose the target group for which you are translating the Bible lives in equatorial rain forests and has never seen snow: would it be better to change the simile? Suppose that the only “wool they have seen is the dirty dun-colored stuff from village goats: could not “faithful’ translation be misleading, while culturally sensitive translation that is nevertheless more distant from the original succeed in communicating the point that God speaking through Isaiah was getting across?

A lot can be said in favor of this sort of flexibility. Certainly in the case of “snow, not a lot seems to be at stake. You might want to check out the other seven biblical occurrences of “white as snow to make sure you are not unwittingly running into some awkward clash or other. But in the case of bread and wine at the Lord‘s Supper, the situation is more complicated. This is because the elements are tied in with other strands of the Bible, and it is almost impossible to disentangle them. Having changed “bread to, say, “yams” in order to avoid any cultural imperialism, what shall we do with the connections between the Lord‘s Supper and the Passover, where only “unleavened bread was to be eaten: can we speak of “unleavened yams?! How about the connection between bread and manna, and then the further connection drawn between bread/manna and Jesus (John.6)? Is Jesus (I say this reverently) now to become the yam of God? And I have not yet begun to exhaust the complications connected with this one.

So what begins as a charitable effort in cross-cultural communication is leading toward major interpretive problems a little farther down the road. Moreover, Bible translations have a much longer shelf-life than the original translators usually think. Fifty years later, once the tribe has become a little more familiar with cultures beyond their own forests, and it seems best in a revision to return to a greater degree of literalism, try and change “yams to “bread and see what kind of ecclesiastical squabbles will break out. The “KJV” of the rain forests has “yams”. . . .

All of these sorts of problems are bound up with the fact that God has not given us a culturally neutral revelation. What he has revealed in words is necessarily tied to specific places and cultures. Every other culture is going to have to do some work to understand what God meant when he said certain things in a particular language at a specific time and place and in a shifting idiom. In the case of some expressions, an analogous idiom may be the best way to render something; in other expressions, especially those that are deeply tied to other elements in the Bible‘s story-line, it is best to render things more literally, and then perhaps include an explanatory note. In this case, for example, it might be wise to say that “bread was a staple food of the people at the time, as yams are to us. A slightly different note would have to be included when leaven or yeast is introduced.

There is almost nothing to be said in favor of California young people using chips and coke as the elements. (I‘m afraid this is not a fictitious example.) Unlike the people of the rain forests, they do not even have in their favor that they have never heard of bread. Nor can it be said that chips and coke are their staples (though doubtless some of them move in that direction). What this represents is the whimsy of what is novel, the love of the iconoclastic, the spirituality of the cutesy—with no connections with either the Lord‘s words or with two thousand years of church history.

(8) Thoughtfully limit comparisons and analogies by observing near and far contexts.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb.13:8). Since he never finally refused to heal anyone who approached him during the days of his flesh, and since he is the same yesterday and today and forever, therefore he will heal all who approach him for healing today. I have had that argument put to me more than once. By the same token, of course, Heb.13:8 could be used to prove that since he was mortal before the cross, he must still be mortal today; or since he was crucified by the Romans, and he is the same yesterday and today and forever, he must still be being crucified by the Romans today.

The fact of the matter is that comparisons and analogies are always self-limiting in some respect or other. Otherwise, you would not be dealing with comparisons and analogies, but with two or more things that are identical. What makes a comparison or an analogy possible is that two different things are similar in certain respects. It is always crucial to discover the planes on which the parallels operate—something that is usually made clear by the context—and to refuse further generalization.

A disciple is to be like his master; we are to imitate Paul, as Paul imitates Christ. In what respects? Should we walk on water? Should we clean the local temple with a whip? Should we infallibly heal those who are ill and who petition us for help? Should we miraculously provide food for thousands out of some little boy‘s lunch? Should we be crucified? Such questions cannot all be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” It is worth observing that most of the injunctions in the Gospels to follow Jesus or to do what he does are bound up with his self- abnegation: e.g. as he is hated, so we must expect to be hated (Jn.15:18); as he takes the place of a servant and washes his disciples‘ feet, so we are to wash one another‘s feet (Jn.13); as he goes to the cross, so we are to take our cross and follow him (Mt.10:38; 16:24; Lk.14:27). Thus the answer to the question, “Should we be crucified?”, is surely ‘yes” and “no”: no, not literally, most of us will have to say, and yet that does not warrant complete escape from the demand to take up our cross and follow him. So in this case the answer is “yes,” but not literally.

(9) Many mandates are pastorally limited by the occasion or people being addressed.

For example, Jesus unambiguously insists, “Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God‘s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. . . . Simply let your Yes‘ be ‘Yes,‘ and your  No,‘  No‘; anything beyond this comes from the evil one(Mt. 6:34–36). Yet we find Paul going well beyond a simple “Yes or “No (e.g. Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 11:10; Gal. 1:20). In fact, God puts himself under an oath (Heb. 6:17–18). Won‘t pedants have a wonderful time with this?

Yet the particular language of Jesus‘ prohibition, not to mention the expanded parallel in Mt. 23:16–22, shows that what Jesus was going after was the sophisticated use of oaths that became an occasion for evasive lying—a bit like the schoolboy who tells whoppers with his fingers crossed behind his back, as if this device exonerated him from the obligation to tell the truth. At some point, it is best to get to the heart of the issue: simply tell the truth, and let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” In other words, the pastoral context is vital. By contrast, the context of Heb. 6–7 shows that when God puts himself under an oath, it is not because otherwise he might lie, but for two reasons: first, to maintain the typological pattern of a priesthood established by oath, and second, to offer special reassurance to the weak faith of human beings who otherwise might be too little inclined to take God‘s wonderful promises seriously.

There are many examples in Scripture of the importance of pastoral context. Paul can say it is good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Cor. 7:1—NIV‘s “not to marry is an unwarranted softening of the Greek). But (he goes on to say) there are also good reasons to marry, and finally concludes that both celibacy and marriage are gifts from God, charismata (1 Cor. 7:7—which I suppose makes us all charismatics). It does not take much reading between the lines to perceive that the church in Corinth included some who were given to asceticism, and others in danger of promiscuity (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12–20). There is a pastoral sensitivity to Paul‘s “Yes, but” argument, one that he deploys more than once in this letter (e.g. 1 Cor. 14:18–19). In other words, there are pastoral limitations to the course advocated, limitations made clear by the context.

In the same way, what Paul says to encourage Christian assurance to the Romans at the end of chap. 8 is not what he says to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 13:5. Which particular elements of a full-blooded, nuanced, and even complex doctrine need to be stressed at any particular time will be determined, in part, by a pastoral diagnosis of the predominant current ailments.

(10) Always be careful how you apply narratives.

Nowadays most of us are familiar with “postmodern” voices that advocate open-ended meaning—meaning, finally, that you or your interpretive community “finds,” not meaning that is necessarily in the text, and only accidentally what the author intended. Not surprisingly, when these postmodern voices turn to the Bible, they are often attracted to narrative portions, since narratives are generically more open to diverse interpretation than discourse. Admittedly, these narrative portions are usually pulled out of their contexts in the books in which they are embedded, and made to stand on their own. Without the contextual constraints, the interpretive possibilities seem to multiply—which is, of course, what the postmodernists want. Narratives have other virtues, of course: they are evocative, affective, image-enhancing, memorable. But unless care is taken, they are more easily misinterpreted than discourse.

In fact, little narratives should not only be interpreted within the framework of the book in which they are embedded, but within the corpus, and ultimately within the canon. Take, for instance, Gen. 39, the account of Joseph‘s early years in Egypt. One can read that narrative and draw from it excellent lessons on how to resist temptation (e.g. Joseph refers to sexual sin to which he is enticed by Potiphar‘s wife as “sin against God, not some mere weakness or foible; he avoids the woman‘s company, at the crunch, because his purity is more important to him than his prospects). But a careful reading of the opening and closing verses of the chapter also shows that one of the important points of the narrative is that God is with Joseph and blesses him even in the midst of the most appalling circumstances: neither the presence of God nor the blessing of God are restricted to happy lifestyles. Then read the chapter in the context of the preceding narrative: now Judah becomes a foil for Joseph. The one is tempted in circumstances of comfort and plenty, and succumbs to incest; the other is tempted in circumstances of slavery and injustice, and retains his integrity. Now read the same chapter in the context of the book of Genesis. Joseph‘s integrity is bound up with the way God providentially provides famine relief not only for countless thousands, but for the covenant people of God in particular. Now read it within the context of the Pentateuch. The narrative is part of the explanation for how the people of God find themselves in Egypt, which leads to the Exodus. Joseph‘s bones are brought out when the people leave. Enlarge the horizon now to embrace the whole canon: suddenly Joseph‘s fidelity in small matters is part of the providential wisdom that preserves the people of God, leads to the exodus that serves as a type of a still greater release, and ultimately leads to Judah‘s (!) distant son David, and his still more distant son, Jesus.

So if you are applying Gen. 39, although it may be appropriate to apply it simply as a moralizing account that tells us how to deal with temptation, the perspective gained by admitting the widening contexts discloses scores of further connections and significances that thoughtful readers (and preachers) should not ignore.

(11) Remember that you, too, are culturally and theologically located.

In other words, it is not simply a case of each part of the Bible being culturally located, while you and I are neutral and dispassionate observers. Rather, thoughtful readers will acknowledge that they, too, are located in specific culture—they are awash in specific language, unacknowledged assumptions, perspectives on time and race and education and humor, notions of truth and honor and wealth. In postmodern hands, of course, these realities become part of the reason for arguing that all interpretations are relative. I have argued elsewhere that although no finite and sinful human being can ever know exhaustive truth about anything (that would require omniscience), they can know some truth truly. But often this requires some self-distancing of ourselves from inherited assumptions and perspectives.

Sometimes this is achieved unknowingly. The person who has read her Bible right through once or twice a year, loves it dearly, and now in her eightieth year reads it no less, may never have self-consciously engaged in some process of self-distancing from cultural prejudice. But she may now be so steeped in biblical outlooks and perspectives that she lives in a different “world” from her pagan neighbors, and perhaps even from many of her more shallow and less well-informed Christian neighbors. But the process can be accelerated by reading meditatively, self-critically, humbly, honestly, thereby discovering where the Word challenges the outlooks and values of our time and place. It is accelerated by the right kinds of small-group Bible studies (e.g. those that include devout Christians from other cultures), and from the best of sermons.

Does our Western culture place so much stress on individualism that we find it hard to perceive, not only the biblical emphasis on the family and on the body of the church, but also the ways in which God judges entire cultures and nations for the accumulating corruptions of her people? Are the biblical interpretations advanced by ―evangelical feminists‖ compromised by their indebtedness to the current focus on women‘s liberation, or are the interpretations of more traditional exegetes compromised by unwitting enslavement to patriarchal assumptions? Do we overlook some of the ―hard‖ sayings about poverty simply because most of us live in relative wealth?

The examples are legion. But the place to begin is by acknowledging that no interpreter, including you and me, approaches the text tabula rasa, like a razed slate just waiting to have the truth inscribed on them. There is always a need for honest recognition of our biases and assumptions, and progressive willingness to reform them and challenge them as we perceive that the Word of God takes us in quite a different direction. As our culture becomes progressively more secular, the need for this sort of reading is becoming more urgent. How it is done—both theoretically and practically—cannot be elucidated here. But that it must be done if we are not to domesticate Scripture to our own worlds cannot be doubted.

(12) Frankly admit that many interpretive decisions are nestled within a large theological system, which in principle we must be willing to modify if the Bible is to have the final word.

This is, of course, a subset of the preceding point, yet it deserves separate treatment.

Some Christians give the impression that if you learn Greek and Hebrew and get your basic hermeneutics sorted out, then you can forget about historical theology and systematic theology: simply do your exegesis and you will come out with the truth straight from the Word of God. But of course, it is not quite that simple. Inevitably, you are doing your exegesis as an Arminian, or as a Reformed Presbyterian, or as a dispensationalist, or as a theonomist, or as a Lutheran—and these are only some of the predominant systems among believers. Even if you are so ignorant of any one tradition that you are a bit of an eclectic, that simply means your exegesis is likely to be a little more inconsistent than that of others.

Systems are not inherently evil things. They function to make interpretation a little easier and a little more realistic: they mean that you do not have to go back to basics at each point (i.e. inevitably you assume a whole lot of other exegesis at any particular instance of exegesis). If the tradition is broadly orthodox, then the system helps to direct you away from interpretations that are heterodox. But a system can be so tightly controlling that it does not allow itself to be corrected by Scripture, modified by Scripture, or even overturned by Scripture. Moreover, not a few interpretative points of dispute are tied to such massive interlocking structures that to change one‘s mind about the detail would require a change of mind on massive structures, and that is inevitably far more challenging a prospect. This is also why a devout Reformed Presbyterian and a devout Reformed Baptist are not going to sort out what Scripture says about, say, baptism or church government, simply by taking out a couple of lexica and working over a few texts together during free moments some Friday afternoon. What is at stake, for both of them, is how these matters are nestled into a large number of other points, which are themselves related to an entire structure of theology.

And yet, and yet. . . . If this is all that could be said, then the postmodernists would be right: the interpretive community determines everything. But if believers are in principle willing to change their minds (i.e. their systems!), and are humbly willing to bring everything, including their systems, to the test of Scripture, and are willing to enter courteous discussion and debate with brothers and sisters who are similarly unthreatened and are similarly eager to let Scripture have final authority, then systems can be modified, abandoned, reformed.

The number of topics affected by such considerations is very large—not only the old chestnuts (e.g. baptism, the significance of Holy Communion, the understanding of covenant, Sabbath/Sunday issues) but more recent questions as well (e.g. theonomy, the place of “charismatic” gifts). For our purposes, we note that some of these manifold topics have to do with what is mandated of believers today.

Let us take a simple example. In recent years, a number of Christians have appealed to Acts 15:28 (“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . .) to serve as a model for how the church comes to difficult decisions involving change in disputed areas—in the case of Acts, circumcision and its significance, and in the modern case, the ordination of women. Is this a fair usage of Acts 15:28? Does it provide a definitive model for how to change things formerly accepted in the church?

But believers with any firm views on the exclusive authority of the canon, or with any sophisticated views on how the new covenant believers were led in the progress of redemption history to re-think the place of circumcision in the light of the cross and resurrection, will not be easily persuaded by this logic. Has every change introduced by various churches across the centuries been justified, simply because it was blessed with the words “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us? Does the church now have the right to change things established in and by the canon in the way that the early church changed things established in and by the Old Testament canon, as if we were similarly located at a strategic turning point in redemptive history? The mind boggles at the suggestions. But what is clear in any case is that such issues cannot properly be resolved without thinking through, in considerable detail, how the parameters of the interpretive decisions are tied to much more substantial theological matters.

One final word: By advancing these dozen points, am I in danger of elevating certain hermeneutical controls above Scripture, controls which themselves serve to domesticate Scripture? Had I time and space, I think I could demonstrate that each of these twelve points is itself mandated by Scripture, whether explicitly or as a function of what Scripture is. It might be a useful exercise to work through the twelve points and think through why this is so. But that would be another essay.

About the Author: Dr. D. A. Carson teaches New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has more than twenty books to his credit. Among them are Showing the Spirit, Exegetical Fallacies, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, How Long O Lord: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, and Matthew in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Article above adapted from: “Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” Modern Reformation 5:3 (May/June 1996): 18–22. Updated 2003.

Notes

1. Allan Bloom, The Closing of The American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 56–57

2. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Banner of Truth, 1925), p. 21.

 

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What Are the Basics of Bible Study? By John MacArthur

There is nothing more important for the Christian than to seek Jesus, hear from Him, obey Him, and proclaim Him daily. Few people that I know of have been more faithful in doing these four things than Pastor John MacArthur in our generation. Therefore, who better to write about on how to study the Bible than someone who has been doing it with great passion and great effectiveness for over fifty years. Enjoy this article by Pastor John MacArthur. – Dr. David P. Craig

Personal Bible study, in precept, is simple. I want to share with you 5 steps to Bible study which will give you a pattern to follow:

STEP 1—Reading. Read a passage of Scripture repeatedly until you understand its theme, meaning the main truth of the passage. Isaiah said, “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Is. 28:9,10).

Develop a plan on how you will approach reading through the Bible. Unlike most books, you will probably not read it straight through from cover to cover. There are many good Bible reading plans available, but here is one that I have found helpful.

Read through the Old Testament at least once a year. As you read, note in the margins any truths you particularly want to remember, and write down separately anything you do not immediately understand. Often as you read you will find that many questions are answered by the text itself. The questions to which you cannot find answers become the starting points for more in-depth study using commentaries or other reference tools.

Follow a different plan for reading the New Testament. Read one book at a time repetitiously for a month or more. This will help you to retain what is in the New Testament and not always have to depend on a concordance to find things.

If you want to try this, begin with a short book, such as 1 John, and read it through in one sitting every day for 30 days. At the end of that time, you will know what is in the book. Write on index cards the major theme of each chapter. By referring to the cards as you do your daily reading, you will begin to remember the content of each chapter. In fact, you will develop a visual perception of the book in your mind.

Divide longer books into short sections and read each section daily for 30 days. For example, the gospel of John contains 21 chapters. Divide it into 3 sections of 7 chapters. At the end of 90 days, you will finish John. For variety, alternate short and long books, and in less than 3 years you will have finished the entire New Testament—as you will really know it!

STEP 2—Interpreting. In Acts 8:30, Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Or put another way, “What does the Bible mean by what it says?” It is not enough to read the text and jump directly to the application; we must first determine what it means, otherwise the application may be incorrect.

As you read Scripture, always keep in mind one simple question: “What does this mean?” To answer that question requires the use of the most basic principle of interpretation, called the analogy of faith, which tells the reader to “interpret the Bible with the Bible.” Letting the Holy Spirit be your teacher (1 John 2:27), search the Scripture He has authored, using cross-references, comparative passages, concordances, indexes, and other helps. For those passages that yet remain unclear, consult your pastor or godly men who have written in that particular area.

Errors to Avoid – As you interpret Scripture, several common errors should be avoided.

Do not draw any conclusions at the price of proper interpretation. That is, do not make the Bible say what you want it to say, but rather let it say what God intended when He wrote it.

Avoid superficial interpretation. You have heard people say, “To me, this passage means,” or “I feel it is saying. . . .” The first step in interpreting the Bible is to recognize the four gaps we have to bridge: language, culture, geography, and history (see below).

Do not spiritualize the passage. Interpret and understand the passage in its normal, literal, historical, grammatical sense, just like you would understand any other piece of literature you were reading today.

Gaps to Bridge – The books of the Bible were written many centuries ago.

For us to understand today what God was communicating then, there are several gaps that need to be bridged: the language gap, the cultural gap, the geographical gap, and the historical gap. Proper interpretation, therefore, takes time and disciplined effort.

Language. The Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Often, understanding the meaning of a word or phrase in the original language can be the key to correctly interpreting a passage of Scripture.

Culture. The culture gap can be tricky. Some people try to use cultural differences to explain away the more difficult biblical commands. Realize that Scripture must first be viewed in the context of the culture in which it was written. Without an understanding of first-century Jewish culture, it is difficult to understand the gospel. Acts and the epistles must be read in light of the Greek and Roman cultures.

Geography. A third gap that needs to be closed is the geography gap. Biblical geography make the Bible come alive. A good Bible atlas is an invaluable reference tool that can help you comprehend the geography of the Holy Land.

History. We must also bridge the history gap. Unlike the scriptures of most other world religions, the Bible contains the records of actual historical persons and events. An understanding of Bible history will help us place the people and events in it in their proper historical perspective. A good Bible dictionary or Bible encyclopedia is useful here, as are basic historical studies.

Principles to Understand

Four principles should guide us as we interpret the Bible: literal, historical, grammatical, and synthesis.

The Literal Principle. Scripture should be understood in its literal, normal, and natural sense. While the Bible does contain figures of speech and symbols, they were intended to convey literal truth. In general, however, the Bible speaks in literal terms, and we must allow it to speak for itself.

The Historical Principle. This means that we interpret in its historical context. We must ask what the text meant to the people to whom it was first written. In this way we can develop a proper contextual understanding of the original intent of Scripture.

The Grammatical Principle. This requires that we understand the basic grammatical structure of each sentence in the original language. To whom do the pronouns refer? What is the tense of the main verb? You will find that when you ask some simple questions like those, the meaning of the text immediately becomes clearer.

The Synthesis Principle. This is what the Reformers called the analogia scriptura. It means that the Bible does not contradict itself. If we arrive at an interpretation of a passage that contradicts a truth taught elsewhere in the Scriptures, our interpretation cannot be correct. Scripture must be compared with Scripture to discover its full meaning.

STEP 3—Evaluating. You have been reading and asking the question, “What does the Bible say?” Then you have interpreted, asking the question, “What does the Bible mean?” Now it is time to consult others to insure that you have the proper interpretation. Remember, the Bible will never contradict itself.

Read Bible introductions, commentaries, and background books which will enrich your thinking through that illumination which God has given to other men and to you through their books. In your evaluation, be a true seeker. Be one who accepts the truth of God’s Word even though it may cause you to change what you always have believed, or cause you to alter your life pattern.

STEP 4—Applying. The next question is: “How does God’s truth penetrate and change my own life?” Studying Scripture without allowing it to penetrate to the depths of your soul would be like preparing a banquet without eating it. The bottom-line question to ask is, “How do the divine truths and principles contained in any passage apply to me in terms of my attitude and actions?”

Jesus made this promise to those who would carry their personal Bible study through to this point: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

Having read and interpreted the Bible, you should have a basic understanding of what the Bible says, and what it means by what it says. But studying the Bible does not stop there. The ultimate goal should be to let it speak to you and enable you to grow spiritually. That requires personal application.

Bible study is not complete until we ask ourselves, “What does this mean for my life and how can I practically apply it?” We must take the knowledge we have gained from our reading and interpretation and draw out the practical principles that apply to our personal lives.

If there is a command to be obeyed, we obey it. If there is a promise to be embraced, we claim it. If there is a warning to be followed, we heed it. This is the ultimate step: we submit to Scripture and let it transform our lives. If you skip this step, you will never enjoy your Bible study and the Bible will never change your life.

STEP 5—Correlating. This last stage connects the doctrine you have learned in a particular passage or book with divine truths and principles taught elsewhere in the Bible to form the big picture. Always keep in mind that the Bible is one book in 66 parts, and it contains a number of truths and principles, taught over and over again in a variety of ways and circumstances. By correlating and cross-referencing, you will begin to build a sound doctrinal foundation by which to live.

What Now?

The psalmist said, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1,2).

It is not enough just to study the Bible. We must meditate upon it. In a very real sense we are giving our brain a bath; we are washing it in the purifying solution of God’s Word.

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).

Here is the spring where waters flow,

To quench our heat of sin:

Here is the tree where truth doth grow,

To lead our lives therein:

Here is the judge that stints the strife,

When men’s devices fail:

Here is the bread that feeds the life,

That death cannot assail.

The tidings of salvation dear,

Comes to our ears from hence:

The fortress of our faith is here,

And shield of our defense.

Then be not like the swine that hath

A pearl at his desire,

And takes more pleasure from the trough

And wallowing in the mire.

Read not this book in any case,

But with a single eye:

Read not but first desire God’s grace,

To understand thereby.

Pray still in faith with this respect,

To bear good fruit therein,

That knowledge may bring this effect,

To mortify thy sin.

Then happy you shall be in all your life,

What so to you befalls:

Yes, double happy you shall be,

When God by death you calls.

(From the first Bible printed in Scotland—1576)

Adapted from the “Introduction” to John MacArthur. ESV MacArthur Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010.

About the Author: Dr. John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. Grace Church has grown from 450 members in 1969, when MacArthur accepted the pastorate, to over 12,000 today. He is also the president of The Master’s College and Seminary in Newhall, California, a prolific author of more than two dozen books, and the speaker on the worldwide radio broadcast, Grace to You, heard over 700 times daily–every half hour, day and night, somewhere around the world. 

The primary emphasis of MacArthur’s ministry has always been the expository preaching and teaching of God’s Word through a verse-by-verse exposition of the Scripture. His studies pay particular attention to the historical and grammatical aspects of each biblical passage. MacArthur’s recently published book, How to Get the Most from God’s Word, released in conjunction with The MacArthur Study Bible, is designed to fill what he sees as “an increased hunger for the meat of the Word.” He assures the reader that the Bible is trustworthy and that an understanding of Scripture is available to everyone. He then provides guidance on how to study the Bible and how to discern the meaning of Scripture for oneself. Dr. MacArthur explains that the book and the Study Bible have been “in the works for 30 years…the product of 32 hours a week, 52 weeks a year…dedicated to the study of God’s Word.” He asserts that “God’s Word is the only thing that satisfies my appetite, but it also arouses an even deeper hunger for more.”

Among MacArthur’s other books are The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series, The Gospel According to Jesus, The Master’s Plan for the Church, Saved Without a Doubt, The Glory of Heaven, Lord Teach Me to Pray, Unleashing God’s Word in Your Life, Safe in the Arms of God, The Second Coming, Why One Way?, and Truth for Today, and Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ. His books have been translated into Chinese, Czechoslovakian, French, Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Spanish, and several Indian languages. Though occasionally viewed by some groups as a controversial figure for strong critiques of freudian psychology, trends in the modern charismatic movement as well as the self-esteem movement, John MacArthur is seen by many as a champion of correcting many of the ills of evangelical Christianity. He is also a champion of helping believers grow stronger in their relationship with God through the committed study of the Word and personal commitment to the local church.
MacArthur spent his first two years of college at Bob Jones University, completed his undergraduate work at Los Angeles Pacific College, and studied for the ministry at Talbot Theological Seminary. John and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California. They have four grown children — Matt, Marcy, Mark, and Melinda–and eight grandchildren.

 

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Book Review: Passages – How Reading the Bible In A Year Will Change Everything by Brian Hardin

Tremendous Motivations For Reading Your Bible Daily

 In Brian Hardin’s own words from his blog on the writing of this book, “In researching the book I discovered that 93% of professing Christians don’t have a daily relationship with the Bible.  I found that a majority of people find the Bible hard to understand.  And yet with these facts comes the startling reality that more than 200 million people in the United States alone would affirm that they believe the Bible is the Word of God and that it is the truth.  It’s an ironic disconnect that believers in Jesus think the Bible is true and contains the path to life but don’t actually learn that path by becoming intimate with Scripture.  This book was written to create a context for that path.  I wrote it to explain that the Bible is not a manual or rule book to live up to, rather, it’s a story….our story.  We can find ourselves in it’s passages.  It’s not a book of exceptions, rather, it’s a book of examples and we are invited as Walt Whitman so eloquently put it to, “contribute a verse.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s fascinating to read this book and hear from Brian how he was led by the Holy Spirit to begin the Daily Audio Bible on the Internet and hear his own testimony of how reading the Bible daily has radically changed his life and the lives of millions of others around the world for the better.

If you have never read the Bible before this book will give you much added motivation for making this very enjoyable discipline a habit for life. The book contains many personal testimonies of people whose lives have been changed for the better that will inspire you to read and listen to God’s Word daily. The book also contains many resources on the Internet to help you begin the exciting journey of Bible reading. In the back of the book there are three reading plans to help you get started.

As a Pastor and Life Coach there is nothing that I can recommend more to help you in your life than to read the Bible and apply it daily. I agree and pray for you what Brian writes and prays at the end of the book, “The Bible is about becoming more like Christ. It constantly invites us to submit ourselves in obedience not to make us miserable but to change us from the inside out…May you find life in God’s Word, my friend, and may true life find you. May he make his face to shine upon you and keep you. May he lift up his countenance on you and give you peace. May the strength of God go with you. May the wisdom of God instruct you. May the hand of God protect you. May the Word of God direct you. May you be sealed in Christ this day and forevermore. Amen.”

 

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Book Review: Handbook of Basic Bible Texts by John Jefferson Davis

Great Resource for Bible Students – Especially those who Teach God’s Word

John Jefferson Davis, professor of Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has provided a very practical resource for Bible Students who desire to check out what the Bible has to say on the various aspects of Systematic Theology (what the whole Bible has to say on a given topic/doctrine).

Each chapter in the book includes a major subject of the Bible followed by a brief introduction; all the relevant verses on the topic in sequential order; brief theological comments on most of the verses; and recommended resources for each subject at the end of each chapter.

Here are the Subjects Covered in the Book:

1)    Scripture – Verbal inspiration and Inerrancy.

2)    God – His existence; Divine attributes – Metaphysical & Moral; The Trinity, and Election (verses supported by both Calvinists and Arminians).

3)    Creation.

4)    Providence – Nature, World History, and Personal Circumstances.

5)    Person of Christ – Humanity and Divinity; Divine Titles; Divine Attributes or Qualities; Divine Actions and Prerogatives; etc.

6)    Man – Man’s Original State; Aspects of Human Nature (Trichotomy and Dichotomy); Man in the State of Sin (Original Sin; Personal Sin, Manifestations and Consequences of Sin.

7)    Work of Christ – Preaching, Teaching, Miracles; Obedience; Death; Resurrection; and Ascension.

8)    Salvation and the Christian Life – Calling and Regeneration; Repentance and Faith; Justification; Sanctification (Wesleyan, Reformed, Pentecostal Distinctives); Perseverance (Reformed and Wesleyan/Arminian Views).

9)    The Church – Nature of the Church; Government of the Church; Mission of the Church.

10) Sacraments – Baptism (General Texts; Believer’s Baptism; Infant Baptism); Lord’s Supper (General Texts, Lutheran, Reformed, and Zwinglian Views).

11) Individual Eschatology – Death and the Intermediate State

12) General Eschatology – The Second Coming of Christ; Millenial Views (all four major views); The General Resurrection; The Final Judgment; The Eternal State.

As a teacher, preacher, disciple maker, mentor, counselor, and life coach for Christ – I find myself coming to this book over and over again to provide just the right verse/s for my understanding and instruction on a particular topic. I like the fact that Davis allows you to formulate your doctrine based on the Biblical evidence. It is more helpful than a concordance in that theological truths are taught throughout the Bible without using theological words (e.g. “Trinity;” “pre-millennial”; etc.) I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

*John Jefferson Davis is Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1975. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor.

 

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