Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

INTERPRETING THE BIBLE

The following are some rules to interpret the Bible, along with their justification.

1. Pay attention to context: This is self-evident. The same teacher who punishes a student for keeping his notes with him during the exam can also conduct an open-book exam. Context means the following:-

  1. What are the surrounding verses?
  2. To whom was the command addressed?
  3. Who said the words?
  4. Is the rule arising directly out of God's character or due to a project that God was doing at a particular time and place? A period of time when God deals with people in a particular way for a particular purpose is called a dispensation.
  5. What kind of passage is it? Is it simple narration, poetry, a vision with symbols?

2. Some statements are universal although they appear in a particular context. If the teacher tells her students that cheating is wrong, it does not mean that cheating in exams is wrong, but cheating in the bank is right! In Matthew 4:4, Jesus interpreted Deuteronomy 8:3 universally although the latter was addressed to Israelites in Moses' time.

3. Do not reach a conclusion on an issue just from one passage; consult each Biblical passage that addresses the issue. This follows from the Bible's claim of being a self-contained whole (see Point 1 at Bible Authority).

4. Apart from the dictionary (which follows general usage), the meanings of Biblical words follow from their Biblical usage.

5. There is only one correct interpretation: This follows from "A is A" and the fact that the Bible claims to be definite (see Point 12 at Bible Authority). However, there can be multiple applications.

6.Interpret symbols consistently. Except otherwise mentioned, the same symbol will represent the same truth. This follows from the Bible's claim of being a self-contained whole (see Point 1 at Bible Authority).

7.The argument from absence: In its unrestricted form, this argument states that

7a) A thing did not happen (or did not exist, or is bad) if the Bible does not mention it. This argument is NOT valid because the Bible does not claim to record everything. However:

7b) This argument assumes significance when other objects of the same class have been mentioned in a way that suggests completeness.

8. When the literal interpretation is logically possible, it is the right one. We know this because:-

  1. It follows from Rule 5. If the literal interpretation is logically possible but not accepted, that leaves the door open for endless confusion. If I tell you I'm coming at 6.30 pm today and you refused the "literal" interpretation of this statement, my time of arrival can be anybody's guess.
  2. This is the way people in the Bible interpreted the Bible. For instance, Jesus interpreted the creation account literally (Mark 10:6-7), as did the New Testament author Paul (Romans 5:12-14).
  3. Predictions in the Bible were fulfilled literally. For example, in 538 BC, Daniel predicted that a foreign nation would destroy Jerusalem and the temple shortly after Christ would die (Daniel 9:26). When the Romans fulfilled this prediction in AD 70, they did it "literally" - the historian Josephus tells us that not one stone of the temple was left on top of the other.

In this rule, "logically possible" means without violating the law of non-contradiction. It includes something that may seem illogical or
impossible to us.

Examples

Let me illustrate these rules with a few examples. We shall interpret some statements and commands from the Bible.

Example 1: God created the universe in just six days. (Exodus 20:11, Genesis 1)
Now this is impossible if God is not almighty. But the Bible claims that God is almighty. So although a six-day creation seems absurd from a materialist standpoint, we must interpret Genesis 1 as meaning six literal days (Rule 8).

Example 2: The Bible tells us that God is Spirit (John 4:24) and so the "feathers" and "wings" of Psalm 91:4 must be taken symbolically because the literal interpretation is not logically possible (Rule 8).

Example 3: In Exodus 34:7, God claims to "visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children upto the fourth generation". Well, punishing the children for the father's sin is definitely unfair. We can only ask with Abraham: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?". Rule 3: Look elsewhere: In Deuteronomy 24:16 and Ezekiel 18:17-20, God makes it clear that He will not punish the children for the father's sins. So what do we make of Exodus 34:7? It tells us that the judgment of God gets transmitted from one generation to the other. India is idolatrous, and thus under God's curse. So it is undeveloped despite having no shortage of talent or natural resources. So an Indian child is deprived of regular electricity, effective schooling, decent roads - things that a child in a country with a Christian heritage such as America would take for granted.

Example 4: Keep the Sabbath - Saturday is to be a day of rest and worship (Exodus 20:9-11). Observe the following (Rules 1 and 3):-
  • Exodus 31:13-17 tells us that the Sabbath is meant only for Israel.
  • When God started the church, the disciples met for worship on Sundays (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2), not Saturdays.
  • Many of the Christians in Biblical times were from the Greco-Roman world where Saturday was not a holiday. Nowhere do we find the epistles trying to address the problem of how the Christians might keep the Sabbath when their bosses want them to work on Saturdays.
  • While it is true that God rested on the seventh day, it is also true that once sin entered the world, God did not rest (John 5:17). The ancient calendars started with the date of creation. But when God redeemed His people out of Egypt, He changed their calendar to commemorate redemption rather than creation (Exodus 12:2). If the Jews were instructed to commemorate creation with the sabbath, Christians are instructed to commemorate redemption (1 Corinthians 11:26) for which the appropriate day is not Saturday but Sunday (the day Jesus rose from the dead). The "calendar" has changed!
Conclusion: Christians are not called to keep the Sabbath.

Example 5: Do not wear clothing made of mixed materials (Leviticus 19:19), don't eat pork (Leviticus 11:7); all males should be circumcized (Genesis 17:10).

Applying Rules 1 and 3, we find from Hebrews 9:10, Acts 10, Galatians 5:6, and Acts 15, that instructions such as these were for Israel when God was dealing with them as a nation. Today, God's people make up the church, which is not Israel; not even a nation, and thus these commands don't apply to Christians.

Example 6: Sacrifice animals! (Exodus 29:38)
Apply Rules 1 and 3: Ever since God called the nation of Israel out of Egypt, the priestly duties needed priests descended from Aaron and a God-appointed place (Deuteronomy 12:5-6, Exodus 28:1). Most Israelis today do not even know whether they are of Aaronic ancestry, and God has indicated the rejection of His appointed place by allowing a mosque there. The book of Hebrews tells us that Christians are supposed to focus on Jesus Christ who is a superior high priest, rather than on the Levitical priesthood and its animal sacrifices.

Example 7: Don't cross-dress (Deuteronomy 22:5)
The original verse (Deuteronomy 22:5) itself tells us that cross-dressing is an abomination to God. Thus (Rule 1b, 1d) the prohibition should not be confined to Israel. Cross-dressing evidently interferes with God's created order of humans: male and female (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, cross-dressing is wrong even today.

Example 8: Don't indulge in homosexual behaviour and adultery (Leviticus 18:21-22). Apply Rule 1:-
  • The original verse (Leviticus 18:22) tells us that homosexuality is an abomination to God. Thus, the prohibition should not be confined to Israel.
  • That homosexuality and adultery are wrong even today is confirmed by Romans 1 (which is addressed to everyone, not just Jews), Matthew 5:28, Malachi 2:14-15, etc.
  • Today, God wants human marriage to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:25-32). Homosexuality and adultery do not fit into the analogy, and thus are wrong.
Example 9: Adultery should be punished by death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:24)
Apply Rule 1: Stoning to death was a mode of capital punishment that God prescribed for Israel when He set them up as His chosen nation. Today, God's people make up the church, which is not a nation, but comprises individuals from various countries. God asks Christians today to follow the laws of their respective governments (Romans 13). Thus, God does not want Christians to stone adulterers to death today.

Example 10: Christians will speak in new languages, drink poison without harm, and heal patients just by laying hands on them (Mark 16:17-18)

Apply Rule 1: Jesus said these words to his disciples in the first century. Why? As signs (see verse 17). This means that these miracles were to authenticate something. What? Just before this (Mark 16:15), Jesus had told his disciples to preach the main message to all. Thus, these signs were to authenticate the main message, whose historical elements (the death and resurrection of Jesus) had just taken place. How many times does God authenticate His messages? Once (see Luke 16:30-31). These signs were fulfilled (Mark 16:20, Acts 5:15, Acts 19:11-12). Thus, Christians should not be expected to do these miracles today.

Example 11: The "kingdom of heaven" [a phrase that occurs often in Matthew] - what does it mean?
Apply Rule 4: The dictionary tells us that this could mean that sphere within the universe governed by God, that is, the Church. This is in contrast to the kingdom of Satan (Matthew 12:26) and the non-Christians. However, when we scan the book of Matthew for references to the kingdom of heaven, we find that it includes tares and wheat (Matthew 13:25) - not just the real thing but counterfeits as well. We thus understand that the kingdom of heaven refers to Christendom - the real Christians as well as the counterfeit ones.
 
Example 12: The kingdom of heaven resembles: a woman puts some leaven in flour, and the whole flour gets leavened (Matthew 13:33)
The common interpretation is that Christianity will spread all over the world. But leaven is consistently forbidden in the sacrifices; there is even a "Feast of Unleavened Bread" where people had to rid their houses of leaven. This shows that leaven suggests something negative. It therefore cannot represent Christianity (Rule 6). We don't have to guess: the Bible itself explains that leaven stands for sin and falsehood (1 Corinthians 5:7-8, Galatians 5:9). Thus the correct interpretation of the leaven parable is that Christendom will gradually be corrupted completely by falsehood. The common interpretation is wrong (Rule 5).
 
Example 13: Don't give the flesh a chance to fulfill its lusts (Romans 13:14).
The interpretation is self-evident. An application could be: "I won't surf the internet when I'm alone". Another application could be: "I won't spend time alone with a person of the opposite sex". Notice that Rule 5 is being applied. Applications should not be confused with Biblical commands. It's good if you've embraced the applications mentioned here. But it would be wrong of you to confront your friend: "Hey, you shouldn't have given so and so a lift in your car!"
 
Example 14: Paul criticizes people in the Corinthian church for suing each other (1 Corinthians 6) and then warns them that unrighteous people will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). So does "unrighteous" just refer to those who sue others? No, Rule 2 implies that it refers to every kind of unrighteousness, as the next few words in the passage show. 
 
Example15: Ahithophel had a son (2 Samuel 23:34) and Mary married Joseph (Matthew 1:24)
It would be wrong to conclude (Rule 7) that Ahithophel did not have a daughter just because no daughter is mentioned. It would be right though to conclude from this verse alone that in all probability, Joseph and Mary had sex because that's what married couples do. If theirs was a sex-less marriage and if it was important for us to know this, an explicit supporting statement is needed in the Biblical record.
 
Example16: "Noodles are good. Carrying the ark on a cart is good. Easter is good."
All the above three things are not forbidden in the Bible. To conclude that noodles are bad because the Bible does not mention them is wrong (Rule 7a); the Bible does not claim to list all good food. However, carrying the ark on a cart is not good, as David should have known (2 Samuel 6), because God had already given instructions for the transport of the ark (Exodus 27:7, Numbers 4:5-15). Similarly, God has instituted the Lord's Supper to celebrate the resurrection every Sunday (Acts 20:7), not Easter (Rule 7b).
 
Example 17: Good things happen on earth to good people, and bad things to bad (Job 4:7-8, 8:6)
Apply Rule 1c: Since God reprimanded the speakers of these words (Job 42:7), we must not blindly accept what they have said. Apply Rule 3: From the rest of the Bible, we know that no one is really good, and that there is an after-life in which good and bad happen to balance the scales of justice. So we can't assume a 100% correlation between a person's character and the things that happen to him on earth.
 
Further reading:
  • Walvoord, John W. ed. 1957. Inspiration and Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co.
  • Carson, D. A. and John D. Woodbridge. 1995. Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.