Balancing Acts – Bible Interpretation in a Nutshell

tom b

Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.

by Tom Beutel

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15 (NRSV)

Disagreements among Christians often originate when individuals or groups interpret the Bible differently. Differences arise for many reasons: lack of understanding of the context of the passage, personal “filters” we bring to reading scriptures, and possibly even different translations.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth emphasize that

the Bible was not written directly for us. It was written using language, ideas, and cultural and historical specifics related to the author and intended audience. Nevertheless, the stories, principles, and revelations contained in the Bible are applicable to us in the current day; that is, the Bible has both historical particularity and eternal relevance.

Understanding what a portion of scripture means is a two-step process:

  • exegesis: understanding what the text meant “there and then,” given its genre, historical and cultural context, vocabulary, thought patterns, content and literary context. Reference material such as a good Bible dictionary must be used for history and culture (unless one is an expert in such matters.) Literary context considers words in sentences, as well as text that precedes and follows. A key question is “What’s the point.
  • hermeneutics: understanding what the text means in the current time and culture, “here and now.” Proper hermeneutics depends on good exegesis. “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” (Fee and Stuart) In applying the text to the current day consider:

An important element in understanding scripture is allowing ourselves to be guided by the Holy Spirit. But, this requires some care if we are to avoid imprinting our own ideas on a text and claiming that the Holy Spirit has revealed a particular understanding.

According to the NIV Study Bible, “The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit (what is commonly called illumination) does not involve revelation of new truth or the explanation of all difficult passages of Scripture to our satisfaction. Rather, it is the development of the capacity to appreciate and appropriate God’s truth already revealed.” ( a study note on I John 2:27, italics added)

As we work at understanding what a text meant “there and then,” it is important to remember that different parts of the Bible use different literary forms: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses. (Fee and Start). Proper understanding requires taking genre into account. A narrative history typically follows people and events over a period of time, while a letter typically focuses on a specific problem or set of problems. Poetry expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet while a sermon or a proverb is intended to teach a lesson.

Finally, in applying texts to the current day (hermeneutics) we sometimes run into situations where the original meaning may be limited to the original historical and cultural context. But one must be careful in making this judgment. Here are several considerations to see if a text has present day relevance. (Fee and Stuart in the context of understanding the Epistles, thus their emphasis on the New Testament.)

(1) Is the text part of the central core message of the Bible or dependent on or peripheral to it?

(2) Is the issue in the text one which the New Testament sees as inherently moral or not?

(3) Is the issue in the text one for which there is a uniform and consistent witness throughout the New Testament?

(4) Is the text a general principle or an application of a principle to a specific situation?

(5) Is the issue in the text one for which there was only a single cultural option?

Examples

Women’s roles in the church. This issue would be seen as culturally relative since: it is not inherent in the core message of the Bible as a whole (human sin, God’s love, redemption through Christ, etc.); it is not treated uniformly in Scripture (women have leadership roles in some places, and seem to be denied them in others); it is probably a specific situation in Paul’s letters responding to problems reported to him; and there was only one cultural option open to Paul – in his time women were considered inferior to men, did not receive education, etc.

Divorce (and remarriage). This issue would not be seen as culturally relative, but as applicable to all time (eternal relevance) since: it is inherent in Biblical idea of covenant and is representative of the relationship between Christ and the church; the New Testament (including the teachings of Jesus) see it as a moral issue; the New Testament is consistently opposed to divorce; it is a general principle, not an application to a specific marriage; it was not the only option as divorce was allowed in Biblical cultures.

Here are links to some resources related to Biblical interpretation:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart, Zondervan, 2003: http://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Bible-All-Worth/dp/0310246040

Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible: http://www.amazon.com/Eerdmans-Dictionary-Bible-David-Freedman/dp/0802824005

The Holy Spirit and Hermeneutics, Daniel B. Wallace: https://bible.org/article/holy-spirit-and-hermeneutics

Bible Gateway for Online Bible Translations: https://www.biblegateway.com/

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One response to “Balancing Acts – Bible Interpretation in a Nutshell

  1. Tom, this is very good and helpful information. I think it’s particularly important to be aware of literary form or genre, A psalm, for instance, is not intended for teaching doctrine but for crying out to God in need, thanks, praise, or worship. If we try to squeeze doctrine out of a psalm (or maybe a narrative text too), we are forcing the scripture to do something it is not intended to do.

    I do have some questions about the example of divorce (which I presume comes from Fee and Stuart). First, I’m not sure I see how marriage is inherent in the Biblical idea of covenant, though we may interpret marriage as a kind of covenant.

    Second, the New Testament is not in fact consistently opposed to divorce: in Matthew, Jesus allows divorce in the case of unchastity (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), unlike in the other gospels (Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18). This inconsistency suggests to me that either Jesus or Matthew was open to considering exceptions for particular reasons. Perhaps, then, their openness authorizes greater openness for us, for example in cases of abuse.

    Finally, while opposition to divorce may be a general principle in the NT, applications to specific marriages are definitely made. Besides the Matthew texts, note 1 Cor. 7:10-16. Paul says that believing couples should not separate, but also allows for the possibility that they do so in some cases. In religiously mixed marriages, remaining together is best, but “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.”

    Thus there is consideration given to specific cases. To me this suggests that the hermeneutical takeaway is not a general, unvarying principle, “Always do this, never do that.” Rather, we, like Jesus, Matthew, and Paul, must discern how and whether and when a general principle is to be applied. “It is to peace that God has called you” seems to be Paul’s actual general principle here, and, regrettable as it may be on other grounds, peace is sometimes best served by divorce.

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