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What Does This Verse Mean to You? Some Thoughts on Understanding the Bible

Adapted from Dr. Richard Howe’s original blog at: https://quodlibetalblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/what-does-this-verse-mean-to-you-verses-most-commonly-taken-out-of-context-pt-1-some-thoughts-about-understanding-the-bible/

In our recent live-stream about truth, we demonstrated how properly understanding the nature of truth and recognizing that truth about reality is objective and knowable are crucial in properly doing both apologetics and Bible study. We also discussed that language is capable of communicating objective truth about reality, including communication found in the Bible. Here we wish to give some preliminary thoughts on how to understand properly the objective truth we find in the pages of Scripture.

Does Everything in the Bible Apply to Us Today? 

First, does everything in the Bible apply to us today? I (Richard) was in a discussion about Bible interpretation when this question came up. I told my friend that it would seem that answer must be ‘no’. In making my case, I appealed to what I thought would be a relatively uncontroversial example from Matthew 21. Verses 1-2 tell us “Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, {2} saying to them, ‘Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me.’” [NKJV] It seemed obvious to me that none of us today are under the obligation to bring a donkey to Jesus. Clearly, Jesus’ command was to the disciples present with Him then and was not a prescription for all time for us to loosen a donkey and bring it to Jesus.

I must quickly add, however, that, based upon hearing some of the most ridiculous sermons and Bible studies, I would not be surprised that somewhere in a pulpit one Sunday, there will be a sermon preached, “Have You Loosened Your Donkey for Jesus?” In thinking about what a “donkey theology” might come to look like throughout the Christian world I had to conclude that the Reformed Calvinist Christians held firmly to the notion that you cannot loosen your own donkey. Instead, God has to sovereignly loosen your donkey for you. To be sure, God only does so for His elect. I’ll avoid the tricky task of trying to referee the debate between the Supralapsarians who hold that God’s decrees are so ordered that God decrees to tie the donkey first and then decrees to loosen the donkeys for the elect vs. the Infralapsarians who insist that God’s ultimate decree was that His elect would have their donkeys loosened and only then decrees to have them antecedently tied.

Baptists, of course, are noted for their battle cry, “Once loosened, always loosened!” The Arminians not only disagree with the Calvinists over whether someone has the free will to loosen his own donkey, but they warn of the danger of losing your donkey on your way to bringing it to Jesus.

Departing from the more conservative wings of the faith, one will note that the liberal Christians maintain that it doesn’t have to literally be a donkey that you bring to Jesus. It can be any farm animal as long as you’re sincere. Moving even further away from a core evangelicalism, the radical pluralists believe that it doesn’t even necessarily have to be Jesus to whom you bring your donkey. You can bring your donkey (or other farm animal) to Krishna or Buddha or more. Last, the New Ager urges everyone to just become one with his donkey. [I can’t take credit for that last one, as it was suggested to me once when I was telling this joke.]

Other passages could be given like the donkey passage that seem to collapse into absurdity when forced to apply to us today. Whenever I encounter a Christian who seems too full of himself in how obedient to the commands of the Bible he thinks he is living, I ask him if he has greeted Rufus yet. After all, we can see from Rom. 16:13 that we’re commanded to do so!

Setting aside, then, those instances where Matt. 21:1-2 or Rom. 16:13 could only be made to apply to us today by the most illegitimate interpretive move, a sober reading of such passages makes us aware that, with any given Bible reading, we have to come to terms with the issue of whether it does or does not apply to us today.

The Challenge of Descriptive vs. Normative (Prescriptive) Passages

In addition to the above challenge (actually a close cousin to it) is the problem of distinguishing descriptive from normative (or prescriptive) passages. A descriptive statement is one that merely states what a situation is, i.e., it describes the situation. A normative (or prescriptive) statement states what a situation ought to be, i.e., it prescribes a situation. I’m sure you’ve heard the old joke about the long-haired “hippy” teen-ager who wanted his dad to buy him a car. The dad, who had grown weary of his son’s long hair, told him that he would buy him a car only if the son cut his hair. The son responded “But dad, Jesus had long hair!” to which the dad countered, “Yes, and he walked everywhere too!” What the joke points out is the issue of whether, because Jesus did X, we, as His followers, should do X.  I remember well as a young person and a new Christian my spiritual leaders urging that we should rise early in the morning to pray just as Jesus did in Mark 1:35. Little did they realize how much they were setting this night owl up for the bleakest discipleship experience because of my repeated failures to crawl out of bed early enough in the morning.

However, such considerations can quickly get one into issues that are less funny than they are controversial or divisive. Consider Malachi 3:10 which commands us to “bring all the tithes into the storehouse” after which God has promised that He would “open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.” Forget wishing that you had a dollar every time this passage was preached in a contemporary church to defend a doctrine of tithing for the Christian. I’m sure such preaching has brought many dollars in already. But is tithing something obligatory (or even expected) for the Christian? Is the Christian church a “storehouse”? Is it obvious that the passage is prescriptive for today?

If such questions were not divisive enough, how about Acts 2:4? The early disciples were all gathered in the upper room. When the Holy Spirit filled them, they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Is such an experience normative for the Christian today? Ought we to seek such an experience? Or is it the case that this experience was something only relative to what God was doing in the early stages of the Church?

The Problem of Moralizing or Allegorizing

More often than I care to count, I have heard sermons where a given passage is “moralized.” This means that the preacher takes the passage, attempts to glean some moral principle from the passage, and then applies the passage to our lives today. What could be wrong with this? After all (some might wonder) is not this the very calling of a preacher vis-à-vis the Bible? The problem arises when, in attempting to glean any such moral principles, the interpreter has to allegorize the passage. Various elements of the passage (most often, but not always, a historical narrative) are given an allegorical (or “spiritual”) rendering.

How many times have you heard 1 Sam. 17:38-39 preached to teach that we should not seek to adopt someone else’s “calling” or “ministry” for ourselves? Instead, we should seek to discover what God’s unique ministry is for us in our own “calling.” This, the preacher might insist, was what David discovered when he attempted to put on Saul’s armor, only to find that it didn’t fit. For David to try to do God’s will in this situation by wearing Saul’s armor (instead of going forth with what God’s had equipped David) was the wrong path. Once he discovered that Saul’s armor didn’t fit (i.e., once he discovered that God did not intend for David to work within what God had given to Saul) then David “took them off.” You know the rest of the story. So, the conclusion goes, if you want to succeed in God’s will for your own ministry, don’t try to “borrow” someone else’s “calling” or “equipping.”

If that lesson doesn’t sound familiar, surely you’ve been encouraged more than once on how to “slay the giants in your life.” The familiar story of David and Goliath has always (in my hearing) been preached as an allegory. It is (so the common interpretation goes) the classic story of the triumph of the underdog. Goliath represents (i.e., is an allegory of) the seemingly insurmountable obstacles we all encounter from time to time in our lives. But with God’s help, we can have the hope of being able to overcome those obstacles by slaying these “giants” that we encounter. What could be a more uplifting message with which to walk out of church to face our week?

Sometimes the stretching used to make a passage “preach” itself begins to stretch credibility. While few people with whom I’ve discussed the issue would see anything wrong with the above take on the David and Goliath passage, I almost fell out of the pew when I heard a preacher encourage all of us to “lighten our loads” in our lives, based on the “principles” he saw in Acts 27:18 “And because we were exceedingly tempest-tossed, the next day they lightened the ship.” If your life is getting to be too much to bear, perhaps you need to consider lightening your load! What made it even worse; the preacher admitted at the beginning of his sermon that this probably wasn’t what this passage was teaching. Apparently the allegory was too hard for him to resist wrenching out for his sermon.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t visit the most notorious example of allegorizing a passage in a public sermon. There are a number of versions of the stories. Most of the versions I’ve heard come from people claiming to have actually heard a preacher preach the passage this way. Then they quickly add the joke that they so cleverly thought while sitting in the pew listening to the sermon. As the preacher is preaching about Jesus riding on the donkey for His triumphal entry, observing how the donkey is “carrying Jesus to the world,” making the application of how we, too, ought to be a “donkey for Jesus” to “carry” Him to our world as (to extend the application) the Great Commission commands, the one telling the story remarks how fortunate it is that the preacher is not preaching from the King James Version of the Bible!

Some Comments on the Issue of “Out-of-Context” Verses

All of the above points fall under the heading of hermeneutics; the science of textual (in this case, biblical) interpretation. There are seemingly countless books that have been written on hermeneutics. Sadly, too many of those books have been compromised (to a greater or lesser extent) by bad philosophy; specifically the philosophical issues surrounding the nature of language, the nature of meaning, the relationship of language to reality, and the nature of how meaning is conveyed from the meaner to the reader. I am not here so much concerned with these critical philosophical issues. For that, I would recommend to my reader Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation by my brother Dr. Tom Howe. For my purposes, I should like to focus on a few more general points and then visit different senses in which a verse or passage can relate to its context.

Sometimes one may use a verse out of context to defend a point that is true and that may actually be taught elsewhere in Scripture. Thus, for me to quarrel with a verse out of context, does not necessarily imply that I disagree with the ultimate conclusion that someone may put to the passage to serve. Even if a conclusion is true, when using a verse out of context, as the saying goes, “You can’t get there from here.”

Six Types of Context

As to the issue of context itself, there are a number of sources of misinterpretation of verses of Scripture. I want to briefly focus on six. First, there is the philosophical context. This involves issues mentioned earlier regarding the nature of truth, the ability of human beings to know truth, the usefulness of language to convey truth, and even metaphysical truths like the fact that all physical beings have natures by which they are known. Without having a sound philosophical underpinning for our hermeneutics, readers can come to all sorts of bad conclusions. For example, the Bible clearly says that Jesus is made of flour and water. After all, He is the bread of life! This is a silly example because we know the nature of human beings (Jesus’ human nature) and the nature of bread. And we know that humans are not bread. Hence, we know that Jesus being the bread of life is a figure of speech. Nevertheless, this simple example illustrates exactly how bad philosophical foundations lead to dangerous, and sometimes heretical, conclusions. For on this issue, see this archived blog post.

Second, there is the Immediate Context. This asks “How might the surrounding verses aid our understanding?” Unpacking this a bit, one should consider in which Testament (Old Testament or New Testament) the verse is found. This can be important because some things are true absolutely and transcend the context of the particular Testament such as God’s existence and nature. Some things are true specifically in reference to the subject matter of the particular Testament. Some verses/promises/warnings/commands pertain to the Nation Israel, some to Christians in general, and some to specific individuals. Also, one needs to consider who exactly is doing the speaking in the passage. Sometimes the passage represents the words of a speaker who is not necessarily conveying God’s words (e.g., Satan in the Garden of Eden) and may, in fact, be speaking a lie. Sometimes the passage represents the words of God Himself.

Third, there is the Original Language Context. This asks “How might the original language of the text aid our understanding?” The Bible was written in Hebrew and Aramaic (Old Testament) and Koine Greek (New Testament). It is possible that the original language might convey a sense (either meaning or significance) that is obscured by a translation.

Fourth, there is the Grammatical Context. This asks “How might a careful reading of the English grammar aid our understanding?” Many examples can be given to illustrate the need to pay careful attention to the adequately translated passage.

Fifth, there is the Historical/Cultural Context. This asks “How might historical or cultural considerations aid our understanding?” Since the culture of the Bible is several thousand years (and even more miles) removed from many of us, the interpreter has to be careful not to ignore this context (or, worse, not to impose his own) in considering a passage.

Last, there is the Theological Context. This asks “How might theological considerations aid our understanding?” Admittedly, this can be the trickiest, if not the most abused. It plays off the delicate interplay of, on the one end, exegesis (leading out of the text the meaning that is there) and, on the other end, systematic theology (the careful arrangement of one’s conclusions about the truths of God into a systematic, coherent whole). Exegesis without systematic theology is in danger of being inconsistent (and, thus, false at some point) while systematic theology without exegesis can lead to defending a theological system without careful regard to the testimony of Scripture. And all of this, again, hinges on a proper philosophical foundation that begins with the undeniable fact that truth about reality is objective and knowable.

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