THE PARALLEL BETWEEN CHRIST AND SCRIPTURE
Read John 1:14; John 2:22; John 8:31, 32; and John 17:17. Which parallels do you see between Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, and Scripture, the Written Word of God?
There is a parallel between the Word of God, who became flesh (i.e., Jesus Christ), and the Written Word of God (i.e., Scripture). Just as Jesus was supernaturally conceived by the Holy Spirit yet born of a woman, Holy Scripture is also of supernatural origin yet delivered through human beings.JESUS CHRIST BECAME A MAN IN TIME AND SPACE.
He lived during a specific time and at a specific place. Yet this fact did not nullify His divinity, nor did it make Jesus historically relative. He is the only Redeemer for all people, all over the world, throughout all time (see Acts 4:12). Likewise, God’s Written Word, the Bible, also was given at a specific time and in a particular culture. Just like Jesus Christ, the Bible is not time-conditioned, i.e., limited to a specific time and location; instead, it remains binding for all people, all over the world.WHEN GOD REVEALED HIMSELF, HE CAME DOWN TO THE HUMAN LEVEL.
Jesus’ human nature showed all the signs of human infirmities and the effects of some 4,000 years of degeneration. Yet, He was without sin. Similarly, the language of Scripture is human language, not some “perfect super-human” language that no one speaks or is able to understand. While any language has its limitations, the Creator of humankind, who is the Creator of human language, is perfectly capable of communicating His will to human beings in a trustworthy manner without misleading us.
Of course, every comparison has its limits. Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture are not identical. The Bible is not an incarnation of God. God is no book. God in Jesus Christ became human. We love the Bible because we worship the Savior proclaimed in its pages.THE BIBLE IS A UNIQUE AND INSEPARABLE DIVINE-HUMAN UNION
. Ellen G. White saw this clearly when she wrote: “The Bible, with its God-given truths expressed in the language of men, presents a union of the divine and the human. Such a union existed in the nature of Christ, who was the Son of God and the Son of man. Thus it is true of the Bible, as it was of Christ, that 'the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ John 1:14”. — Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 8.THE ORIGIN AND NATURE OF SCRIPTURE
The way we see and understand the origin and nature of Scripture greatly impacts the role that the Bible plays in our lives and in the church at large.
How we interpret the Bible is significantly shaped and influenced by our understanding of the process of revelation and inspiration. When we want to understand Scripture correctly, we first of all need to allow the Bible to determine the basic parameters of how it should be treated. We cannot study mathematics with the empirical methods employed in biology or sociology. We cannot study physics with the same tools used to study history. In a similar manner, the spiritual truths of the Bible will not be known and understood correctly by atheistic methods that approach the Bible as if God did not exist. Instead, our interpretation of Scripture needs to take seriously the divine-human dimension of God’s Word. Hence what is needed for a proper interpretation of Scripture is that we approach the Bible in faith rather than with methodological skepticism or doubt.
This week we will look at some foundational aspects of the origin and nature of the Bible that should impact our interpretation and understanding of it.“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, NKJV).THE PROCESS OF INSPIRATION:
Because God uses the medium of language to reveal His will to man, divine revelation is capable of being written down. Yet, as we already have seen, the Bible is the result of God’s revealing truth to us through the work of the Holy Spirit, who transmits and safeguards His message through human instruments. This is the reason why we can expect the fundamental unity that is seen in all of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation (for example, compare Genesis 3:14, 15 to Revelation 12:17).
All of Scripture is divinely inspired, even if not all parts are equally inspiring to read or even necessarily applicable to us today (for example, the sections about the Hebrew feasts were inspired even though we’re not required to keep them today). Yet we need to learn from all of Scripture, even from those parts that are not so easy to read and understand or that are not specifically applicable to us now.
Also, not everything in the Bible was directly or supernaturally revealed. Sometimes God used biblical writers who carefully investigated things or used other existing documents (see Josh. 10:13, Luke 1:1-3) to communicate His message.
Even then, all Scripture is inspired (2 Tim. 3:16). This is the reason why Paul states that “whatever” was written, was written for our instruction, so that through “the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4, NASB).
“The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands; and in the varied style of its different books it presents the characteristics of the several writers. The truths revealed are all 'given by inspiration of God’ (2 Tim. 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men”. — Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 7.UNDERSTANDING BIBLE FAITH:
All true learning takes place in the context of faith. It is the implicit faith of the child toward his or her parents that enables the child to learn new things. It is a trusting relationship that guides the child to learn the basic and fundamental aspects of life and love. Knowledge and understanding, therefore, grow out of a loving and trusting relationship.
In the same vein, a good musician plays a piece of music well when he or she not only masters the technical skills that help one to play an instrument, but when he or she exhibits a love for the music, the composer, and the instrument. In a similar way, we do not understand the Bible correctly when we approach it with an attitude of skepticism or methodological doubt, but in a spirit of love and faith. The apostle Paul wrote, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6, NIV). Thus, it is indispensable to approach the Bible in faith, acknowledging its supernatural origin, rather than seeing the Bible just as a human book.
Seventh-day Adventists have clearly expressed this insight into the supernatural origin of Scripture in the first Fundamental Belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which states: “The Holy Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are the written Word of God, given by divine inspiration.THE INSPIRED AUTHORS SPOKE AND WROTE AS THEY WERE MOVED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.
In this Word, God has committed to humanity the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history. (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 30:5, 6; Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Heb. 4:12; 2 Peter 1:20, 21.)”POST MODERN AGE
Unfortunately, in this post-modern age, the Bible has been largely reinterpreted through the lens of a philosophy that questions both its inspiration and its authority. In fact, the Bible is seen as merely the ideas of human beings living in a relatively primitive culture who couldn’t possibly understand the world as we do today. At the same time, the supernatural element has been either downplayed or even removed from the picture, turning the Bible into a document that, instead of being God’s view of man, has become man’s view of God. And the result is that, for many, the Bible has become largely irrelevant in an age of Darwinian thinking and modern philosophy.
However, we completely reject that position. Instead, in the New Testament, we can see the inspired way to view the entire Scripture by studying how Jesus and the apostles understood the Old Testament, the only Bible that they had at that time. How did they relate to the people, places, and events described? What were their assumptions and subsequent methods of interpretation? Let’s follow them and their understanding, in contrast to the misconceptions of uninspired humans whose assumptions lead only to skepticism and doubt about the Word of God.JESUS AND THE LAW (Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 22:29; and Matthew 23:2, 3.)
Jesus taught His disciples obedience to the Word of God and the law. There is never a hint of Him doubting the authority or relevance of Scripture. On the contrary, He constantly referred to it as the source of divine authority. And to the Sadducees He said, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29, RSV). Jesus taught that a mere intellectual knowledge of the Bible and its teachings was insufficient for knowing truth and, more importantly, for knowing the Lord, who is that truth.THE BIBLE — THE AUTHORITATIVE SOURCE OF THEOLOGY
Mark 7:1-13; Rom. 2:4; 1 John 2:15-17; 2 Cor. 10:5, 6; John 5:46, 47; John 7:38.
There is no Christian church that does not use Scripture to support its beliefs. Yet the role and authority of Scripture in theology is not the same in all churches. In fact, the role of Scripture can vary greatly from church to church. This is an important but complex subject that we will explore by studying five different influential sources that impact our interpretation of Scripture: tradition, experience, culture, reason, and the Bible itself.
These sources play a significant role in every theology and in every church. We all are part of various traditions and cultures that impact us. We all have experiences that shape our thinking and influence our understanding. We all have a mind to think and to evaluate things. We all read the Bible and use it for our understanding of God and His will.
Which of these sources, or combinations of them, has the final authority in how we interpret the Bible, and how are they used in relation to each other? The priority given to any source or sources leads to very different emphases and results and will ultimately determine the direction of our entire theology.TRADITION:
Tradition itself is not bad. It gives recurring acts in our daily life a certain routine and structure. It can help us to stay connected with our roots. Hence, it is no surprise that tradition also plays an important part in religion. But there are also some dangers connected with tradition.
The tradition Jesus confronted was carefully handed down in the Jewish community from teacher to pupil. In Jesus’ day, it had assumed a place alongside Scripture. Tradition, however, has a tendency to grow over long periods of time, thus accumulating more and more details and aspects that were not originally part of God’s Word and plan. These human traditions — even though they are promoted by respected “elders” (see Mark 7:3, 5), i.e., by the religious leaders of the Jewish community — are not equal to God’s commandments (see Mark 7:8, 9). They were human traditions, and ultimately they led to a point where they made “the word of God of no effect” (Mark 7:13, NKJV).
Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6.
The living Word of God initiates in us a reverent and faithful attitude toward it. This faithfulness generates a certain tradition. Our faithfulness, however, always needs to be loyal to the living God, who has revealed His will in the Written Word of God. Thus, the Bible holds a unique role that supersedes all human traditions. The Bible stands higher and above all traditions, even good ones. Traditions that grow out of our experience with God and His Word constantly need to be tested against the measuring rod of Holy Scripture.EXPERIENCE
Experience is part of our human existence. It impacts our feelings and thoughts in a powerful way. God has designed us in such a way that our relationship to His creation, and even to God Himself, is significantly connected to and shaped by our experience.
It is God’s desire that we experience the beauty of relationships, of art and music, and of the wonders of creation, as well as the joy of His salvation and the power of the promises of His Word. Our religion and faith are more than just doctrine and rational decisions. What we experience significantly shapes our view of God and even our understanding of His Word. But we also need to see clearly the limitations and insufficiencies of our experiences when it comes to knowing God’s will.
What warning is found in 2 Corinthians 11:1-3? What should this tell us about the limits of trusting our experiences?
Experiences can be very deceiving. Biblically speaking, experience needs to have its proper sphere. It needs to be informed and shaped by Scripture and interpreted by Scripture. Sometimes we want to experience something that is out of harmony with God’s Word and will. Here we need to learn to trust the Word of God even over our experience and desires. We should be on guard to make sure that even our experience is always in harmony with the Word of God and does not contradict the clear teaching of the Bible.CULTURE
We all belong to and are part of a particular culture or cultures. We are all influenced and shaped by culture, too. None of us escapes it. Indeed, think about how much of the Old Testament is the story of ancient Israel’s being corrupted by the cultures around it. What makes us think that we today are any different, or better?
The Word of God also is given in a specific culture, even though it is not limited to this one culture. While cultural factors unavoidably influence our understanding of the Bible, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Bible also transcends established cultural categories of ethnicity, empire, and social status. This is one reason why the Bible surpasses any human culture and is even capable of transforming and correcting the sinful elements that we find in every culture.
Read 1 John 2:15-17. What does John mean when He states that we should not love the things of the world? How can we live in the world and yet not have a worldly mindset?
Culture, like any other facet of God’s creation, is affected by sin. Consequently, it also stands under the judgment of God. Yes, some aspects of our culture might align very nicely with our faith, but we must always be careful to distinguish between the two. Ideally, biblical faith should challenge, if need be, the existing culture and create a counter culture that is faithful to God’s Word. Unless we have something anchored in us that comes from above us, we will soon give in to that which is around us.
Ellen G. White provides the following insight: “The followers of Christ are to be separate from the world in principles and interests, but they are not to isolate themselves from the world. The Saviour mingled constantly with men, not to encourage them in anything that was not in accordance with God’s will, but to uplift and ennoble them”. — Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students , p. 323.REASON
God has given us the ability to think and to reason. Every human activity and every theological argument assumes our ability to think and to draw conclusions. We do not endorse an unreasonable faith. In the wake of the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment, however, human reason assumed a new and dominant role, especially in Western society, that goes far beyond our ability to think and to arrive at correct conclusions.
In contrast to the idea that all our knowledge is based on sensory experience, another view regards human reason as the chief source of knowledge. This view, called rationalism, is the idea that truth is not sensory but intellectual and is derived from reason. In other words, certain truths exist, and our reason alone can directly grasp them. This makes human reason the test and norm for truth. Reason became the new authority before which everything else had to bow, including the authority of the church and, more dramatically, even the authority of the Bible as God’s Word. Everything that was not self-evident to human reason was discarded and its legitimacy questioned. This attitude affected large parts of Scripture. All miracles and supernatural acts of God, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth, or the six-day Creation, to name but a few, were no longer considered true and trustworthy.
The truth is, we should remember the fact that even our reasoning power is affected by sin and needs to be brought under the reign of Christ. Human beings are darkened in their understanding and alienated from God (Eph. 4:18). We need to be enlightened by God’s Word. Furthermore, the fact that God is our Creator indicates that, biblically speaking, our human reason is not created as something that functions independently or autonomously of God. Rather, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10; compare with Prov. 1:7). It is only when we accept God’s revelation, embodied in the Written Word of God, as supreme in our lives, and are willing to follow what is written in the Bible, that we can reason correctly.BY SCRIPTURE ALONE — SOLA SCRIPTURA
The Protestant claim of “Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura) elevated Scripture to the sole standard and decisive source for theology. In contrast to Roman Catholic theology, which emphasized Scripture and tradition, the Protestant faith emphasized the keyword “alone”; that is, Scripture alone is the final authority when matters of faith and doctrine are at issue.
It was the Bible that gave the decisive force and authority to the Protestant Reformation and its revolt against Rome and the errors it had been teaching for centuries. Over against an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, where many different meanings were read into the biblical text, the Protestant Reformers emphasized the importance of a grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible, which took seriously the grammar and literal meaning of the biblical text.
This week we will look at sola Scriptura in greater detail. We will learn that sola Scriptura implies some fundamental principles of biblical interpretation that are indispensable for a proper understanding of God’s Word. As Protestants, we must maintain the Bible as the ultimate doctrinal authority.SCRIPTURE AS THE RULING NORM
From their beginning, Seventh-day Adventists have considered themselves to be people of the Book, that is, Bible-believing Christians. To affirm the scriptural principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), we acknowledge the unique authority of the Bible. Scripture alone is the ruling norm for our theology and the ultimate authority for life and doctrine. Other sources, such as religious experience, human reason, or tradition, are subservient to the Bible. In fact, the sola Scriptura principle was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from dependence upon the church and its interpretation, and it ruled out the possibility that the standard of its interpretation should come from outside the Bible.
Read 1 Corinthians 4:1-6, especially verse 6, in which Paul says we should not go “beyond what is written” (NKJV). Why is this point so crucial for our faith?
Not to go beyond what is written does not exclude insights from other fields of study, such as biblical archaeology or history. Other fields may shed light on some biblical aspects and the background of scriptural passages, and thus may help us to understand the biblical text better. Nor does it exclude the help of other resources in the task of interpretation, such as lexicons, dictionaries, concordances, and other books and commentaries. However, in the proper interpretation of the Bible, the text of Scripture has priority over all other aspects, sciences, and secondary helps. Other viewpoints have to be evaluated carefully from the standpoint of Scripture as a whole.
What we positively affirm when we practice the sola Scriptura principle is that if a conflict arises in the interpretation of our faith, then Scripture alone carries the authority that transcends and judges any other source or church tradition. We should not go beyond or against what is written in the Bible. True Christianity and convincing, gospel preaching depend on a firm commitment to the authority of Scripture.
“Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth”. — Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, eds. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999], pp. 11, 12.THE UNITY OF SCRIPTURE
The Bible itself claims that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV) and that “no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation”, and that men “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20, 21, NIV). With God as the Bible’s ultimate author, we can assume a fundamental unity and harmony among the various parts of Scripture in regard to the key issues it teaches.
Read Titus 1:9 and 2 Timothy 1:13. Why is the unity of the Bible important for our belief?
Only on the basis of its internal unity, a unity that is derived from its divine inspiration, can Scripture function as its own interpreter. If Scripture did not have an overarching unity in its teachings, we could not come up with a harmony in doctrine on any given issue. Without the unity of the Bible, the church would have no means to distinguish truth from error and to repudiate heresy. It would have no basis to apply disciplinary measures or to correct deviations from God’s truth. Scripture would lose its convincing and liberating power.
Jesus and the biblical writers, however, assume the unity of Scripture, which is based on its divine origin. We can see this in their common practice of quoting several Old Testament books as of equal and harmonious weight (Rom. 3:10-18; here Paul makes use of Scriptural citations from Ecclesiastes [7:20], Psalms [14:2, 3; 5:9; 10:7] and Isaiah [59:7, 8]).
The Bible writers considered Scripture to be an inseparable, coherent whole in which major themes are further developed. There is no discord between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The New Testament does not contain a new gospel or a new religion. The Old Testament is unfolded in the New Testament, and the New Testament builds upon the Old Testament. As such, the two Testaments have a reciprocal relationship in which they shed light upon each other.
The Unity of Scripture also implies that all of Scripture (tota scriptura) should be taken into consideration when we study a biblical subject, rather than building our teaching only on isolated statements.THE CLARITY OF SCRIPTURE
Any appeal to Scripture alone makes little sense if the text of the Bible is unclear in its meaning.
Read Matthew 21:42; Matthew 12:3, 5; Matthew 19:4; Matthew 22:31; Mark 12:10, 26; Luke 6:3; Matthew 24:15; and Mark 13:14. What does Jesus’ repeated referral to Scripture imply regarding the clarity of its message?
The biblical testimony is unambiguous: the Bible is sufficiently clear in what it teaches. The Bible is so clear that it can be understood by children and by adults alike, especially in its most basic teachings. And yet there are endless opportunities for our knowledge and understanding to grow deeper. We do not need any ecclesiastical magisterium to provide the Bible’s meaning for us. Instead, its basic teachings can be understood by all believers. It assumes the priesthood of all believers rather than restricting its interpretation to a select few, like the clerical priesthood. Therefore, we are encouraged in the Bible to study Scripture for ourselves because we are able to understand God’s message to us.
It has been aptly pointed out that “the consistent example of the Bible writers shows that the Scriptures are to be taken in their plain, literal sense, unless a clear and obvious figure is intended. . . . There is no stripping away of the 'husk’ of the literal sense in order to arrive at the 'kernel’ of a mystical, hidden, allegorical meaning, that only the initiated can uncover”. — Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology [Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000], p. 65. Rather, the clarity of the Bible pertains to the language, sense, and words of Scripture because there is a definite truth intended by the biblical writers rather than subjective, uncontrolled, multiple meanings of the biblical text.
None of this means that we won’t, at times, come across texts and ideas that we don’t fully understand or grasp. After all, this is the Word of God, and we are but fallen human beings. Nevertheless, God’s Word is sufficiently clear on the things that we really need to know and understand, especially in relation to the question of salvation.SCRIPTURE INTERPRETS SCRIPTURE
Only because there is an underlying unity of Scripture can the Bible function as its own interpreter. Without such unity, Scripture could not be the light that reveals its own meaning, where one portion of Scripture interprets other portions and thus becomes the key to understanding related passages.
Read Luke 24:27, 44, 45. How does Jesus refer back to Scripture to explain who He is? What does this teach us about how we can use Scripture?
The beauty of letting Scripture interpret Scripture is that it sheds further light on its own meaning. In doing so, we do not indiscriminately string together various passages to prove our opinion. Instead, we carefully take into consideration the context of each passage. Besides the immediate context before and after a passage under investigation, we should take into consideration the context of the book in which the passage is found. Furthermore, since according to Paul in Scripture, “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us” (Rom. 15:4, NIV), we should study all that Scripture says on a given subject.
“The Bible is its own expositor. Scripture is to be compared with scripture. The student should learn to view the word as a whole, and to see the relation of its parts. He should gain a knowledge of its grand central theme, of God’s original purpose for the world, of the rise of the great controversy, and of the work of redemption”. — Ellen G. White, Education, p. 190.
When we compare Scripture with Scripture, it is important to study the Bible thoroughly. If possible, we should do so in its original languages, or at least with an appropriate Bible translation faithful to the meaning contained in the original Hebrew and Greek. Though knowledge of the original languages is not necessary to have a good understanding of the Bible, it certainly helps when possible. If not, faithful and prayerful study of the Word, with an attitude of humility and submission, will still surely bear great fruit.SOLA SCRIPTURA AND ELLEN G. WHITE
Read Isaiah 8:20. Why is it always important to refer back to the biblical “law and testimony” as the norms for our teaching and doctrine? What does this mean for the ministry of prophets who have not become part of the biblical canon?
When we talk about sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Seventh-day Adventists are inevitably confronted with the question of what to do with Ellen G. White, who also was inspired by God and served as God’s messenger to His remnant people. What is the relationship of her writings to Scripture?
Even a cursory reading of Ellen G. White’s writings shows clearly that for her, the Bible was foundational and central in all her thought and theology. In fact, she repeatedly affirmed that the Bible is the highest authority and ultimate norm and standard for all doctrines, faith, and practice (see The Great Controversy, p. 595). Moreover, she clearly supported and upheld the great Protestant principle of sola Scriptura (see The Great Controversy, p. 9).
In Ellen G. White’s own view, her writings, when compared with Scripture, were a “lesser light to lead men and women to the greater light”, the Bible (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 20, 1903). Her writings are never a shortcut to or replacement for any serious Bible study. In fact, she comments: “You are not familiar with the Scriptures. If you had made God’s word your study, with a desire to reach the Bible standard and attain to Christian perfection, you would not have needed the Testimonies. It is because you have neglected to acquaint yourself with God’s inspired Book that He has sought to reach you by simple, direct testimonies”. — Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 2, p. 605.
As such, her writings are to be appreciated. They share the same kind of inspiration as the biblical writers had, but they have a different function than does the Bible. Her writings are not an addition to Scripture but are subject to Holy Scripture. She never intended her writings to take the place of Scripture; instead, she elevated the Bible as the only standard for faith and practice.
Think about what an incredible gift we have been given through the ministry of Ellen G. White. How can we learn to appreciate better the amazing light coming from her while also upholding the supremacy of Scripture?WHY IS INTERPRETATION NEEDED?
To read the Bible also means to interpret the Bible. But how do we do that? What principles do we use? How, for instance, do we deal with the different kinds of writing we find there? For example, is the passage we’re reading a parable, a prophetic-symbolic dream, or a historical narrative? The decision of such an important question of the context of Scripture involves an act of interpretation itself.
At times, some people use the Bible as a divine oracle: simply opening the Bible randomly to seek a Bible verse that they hope will provide guidance. But randomly linking Bible passages as one finds them can lead to very strange and wrong conclusions.
For instance, when a husband left his wife for another woman, the wife got great assurance when she found the following text: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman” (Gen. 3:15, NKJV). She was convinced, based on that verse, that her husband’s affair would not last!
Any text without a context quickly becomes a pretext for one’s own agenda and ideas. Hence, there is a great need for us not just to read the Bible but to interpret it correctly.PRESUPPOSITIONS
Read Luke 24:36-45. What prevented the disciples, who were very familiar with Scripture, from seeing the true meaning of the Word of God, even when events predicted in it had unfolded before them?
No one comes to the text of Scripture with a blank mind. Every reader, every student of Scripture, comes to the Bible with a particular history and personal experience that inevitably impacts the process of interpretation. Even the disciples had their own particular ideas of who the Messiah was and what He was supposed to do, based on the expectations of their times. Their strong convictions prohibited a clearer understanding of the biblical text, which helps explain why they so often misunderstood Jesus and the events surrounding His life, death, and resurrection.
We all hold a number of beliefs about this world, about ultimate reality, about God, etc., that we presuppose or accept — even unwittingly or unconsciously — when we interpret the Bible. No one approaches the biblical text with an empty mind. If, for instance, someone’s worldview categorically rules out any supernatural intervention by God, that person will not read and understand Scripture as a true and reliable report of what God has done in history, but will interpret it very differently from someone who accepts the reality of the supernatural.
Interpreters of the Bible cannot completely divest themselves from their own past, their experiences, resident ideas, and preconceived notions and opinions. Total neutrality, or absolute objectivity, cannot be achieved. Bible study and theological reflection always happen against the background of presuppositions about the nature of the world and the nature of God.
But the good news is that the Holy Spirit can open up and correct our limited perspectives and presuppositions when we read the words of Scripture with an open mind and honest heart. The Bible repeatedly affirms that people with vastly different backgrounds were able to understand the Word of God and that the Holy Spirit leads us “into all truth” (John 16:13).TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION
The Bible was written in very ancient languages: the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a few passages in Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. The majority of the world population today does not speak and read those ancient languages. Hence, the Bible has to be translated into different modern languages.
But, as any good translator knows, every translation always involves some kind of interpretation. Some words in one language do not have an exact equivalent in another. The art and skill of carefully translating and then interpreting texts is called “hermeneutics”.
Read 1 Corinthians 12:10, 1 Corinthians 14:26, John 1:41, 9:7, Acts 9:36, and Luke 24:27. In all the above passages, we see the idea of interpretation and translation. In Luke 24:27 even Jesus had to explain the meaning of Scripture to the disciples. What does this tell us about the importance of interpretation?
The Greek word hermeneuo, from which we have the word hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), is derived from the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was considered to be an emissary and messenger of the gods, and as such was responsible for, among other things, translating divine messages for the people.
The crucial point for us in regards to hermeneutics is that unless we read the original languages, our only access to the texts is through translations. Fortunately, many translations do a good job of conveying the essential meaning. We do not need to know the original language to be able to understand the crucial truths revealed in Scripture, even if having that linguistic knowledge could be beneficial. Yet, even with a good translation, a proper interpretation of the texts is important as well, as we saw in Luke 24:27. That’s the key purpose of hermeneutics: to convey accurately the meaning of Bible texts and to help us know how to apply properly the text’s teaching to our lives now. As the text in Luke above shows, Jesus did this for His followers. Imagine what it must have been like having Jesus Himself interpret Bible passages for you!The Bible and Culture
Read Acts 17:16-32. In Acts 17, Paul tried to deliver the gospel message in a new context: the philosophy of Greek culture. How do different cultural backgrounds impact how we evaluate the importance of various ideas?
A background knowledge of Near Eastern culture is helpful for understanding some biblical passages. “For example, Hebrew culture attributed responsibility to an individual for acts he did not commit but that he allowed to happen. Therefore, the inspired writers of the Scriptures commonly credit God with doing actively that which in Western thought we would say He permits or does not prevent from happening, for example, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart”. — “Methods of Bible Study”, section 4.p.
Culture also raises some important hermeneutical questions. Is the Bible culturally conditioned, and thus only relative to that culture in what it asserts? Or does the divine message given in a particular culture transcend this particular culture and speak to all human beings? What happens if one’s own cultural experience becomes the basis and litmus test for our interpretation of Scripture?
In Acts 17:26, the apostle Paul gives an interesting perspective on reality that is often overlooked when people read this text. He states that God made us all from one blood. While we are culturally very diverse, biblically speaking there is a common bond that unites all people, despite their cultural differences, and that’s because God is the Creator of all humanity. Our sinfulness and our need of salvation is not limited to one culture. We all need the salvation offered to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Though God spoke to specific generations, He saw to it that future generations reading the Word of God would understand that those truths go beyond the local and limited circumstances during which the Bible texts were written.
As a parallel, think about algebra, which was first invented in the 9th century AD in Baghdad. Does this mean, then, that the truths and principles of this branch of mathematics are limited only to that time and place? Of course not.
The same principle applies to the truths of God’s Word. Though the Bible was written a long time ago in cultures very different from ours today, the truths it contains are as relevant to us now as they were to whom they were first addressed.OUR SINFUL AND FALLEN NATURE
Read John 9:39-41 and John 12:42, 43. What hindered the people in these passages from accepting the truth of the biblical message? What words of warning and caution can we take away from these incidents for ourselves?
It’s easy to look back with scorn at the religious leaders who rejected Jesus despite such powerful evidence. Yet, we need to be careful ourselves that we don’t foster a similar attitude when it comes to His Word.
There is no question that sin has radically altered, ruptured, and fractured our relationship with God. Sin affects all of our human existence. It also affects our ability to interpret Scripture. It is not just that our human thought processes are easily employed for sinful ends, but our minds and thoughts have become corrupted by sin and, therefore, become closed to God’s truth. The following characteristics of this corruption can be detected in our thinking: pride, self-deception, doubt, distance, and disobedience.
A prideful person elevates himself or herself over God and His Word. This is because pride leads the interpreter to overemphasize human reason as the final arbiter of truth, even truths found in the Bible. This attitude diminishes the divine authority of Scripture.
Some people tend to listen only to those ideas that are attractive to them, even if they are in contradiction to God’s revealed will. God has warned us about the danger of self-deception (Rev. 3:17). Sin also fosters doubt, in which we waver and are inclined not to believe God’s Word. When one starts with doubt, the interpretation of the biblical text will never lead to certainty. Instead, the doubting person quickly elevates himself to a position where he judges what is and is not acceptable in the Bible, which is very dangerous ground to be standing on.
Instead, we should approach the Bible in faith and submission, and not with an attitude of criticism and doubt. Pride, self-deception, and doubt lead to an attitude of distance toward God and the Bible that surely will lead to disobedience, that is, an unwillingness to follow God’s revealed will.WHY INTERPRETATION IS IMPORTANT
Read Nehemiah 8:1-3, 8. Why is a clear understanding of Scripture so important for us, not only as individuals but as a church?
The most important question in the Bible is the question of salvation and how we are saved. After all, what else matters in the long run? What good is it, as Jesus Himself told us, if we gain all that the world offers and lose our own souls (Matt. 16:26)?
But to know what the Bible teaches about salvation depends very much on interpretation. If we approach and interpret the Bible wrongly, we will likely come to false conclusions, not just in the understanding of salvation but in everything else that the Bible teaches. In fact, even in the time of the apostles, theological error had already crept into the church, no doubt buttressed by false interpretations of Scripture.
Read 2 Peter 3:15, 16. What does this tell us about how important a correct reading of Scripture is?
Indeed, if we are a people of the Book, who want to live by the Bible and the Bible alone — and we do not have other authoritative sources like tradition, creeds, or the teaching authority of the church to interpret the Bible for us — then the issue of a correct hermeneutic of the Bible is so important because we have only the Bible to tell us what we shall believe and how we shall live.
The issue of the interpretation of Scripture is vital to the theological and missiological health of the church. Without a correct interpretation of the Bible, there can be no unity of doctrine and teaching, and thus no unity of the church and our mission. A bad and distorted theology inevitably leads to a deficient and distorted mission. After all, if we have a message to give to the world but are confused about the meaning of the message, how efficiently will we be able to present that message to those who need to hear it?
Read the Three Angels’ Messages of Revelation 14:6-12. What are the theological issues here, and why is a correct understanding of them so important to our mission?
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “What to Do With Doubt”, pp. 105-113, in Steps to Christ, and from the document “Methods of Bible Study” Section 1: “Bible Study: Presuppositions, Principles, and Methods”, Section 2: “Presuppositions Arising from the Claims of Scripture” and Section 3: “Principles for Approaching the Interpretation of Scripture”. (Methods of Bible Study can be found at www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-interpretation-hermeneutics/methods-bible-study).
“In your study of the word, lay at the door of investigation your preconceived opinions and your hereditary and cultivated ideas. You will never reach the truth if you study the Scriptures to vindicate your own ideas. Leave these at the door, and with a contrite heart go in to hear what the Lord has to say to you. As the humble seeker for truth sits at Christ’s feet, and learns of Him, the word gives him understanding. To those who are too wise in their own conceit to study the Bible, Christ says, You must become meek and lowly in heart if you desire to become wise unto salvation.
Do not read the word in the light of former opinions; but, with a mind free from prejudice, search it carefully and prayerfully. If, as you read, conviction comes, and you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the word, do not try to make the word fit these opinions. Make your opinions fit the word. Do not allow what you have believed or practiced in the past to control your understanding. Open the eyes of your mind to behold wondrous things out of the law. Find out what is written, and then plant your feet on the eternal Rock”. — Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People, p. 260.