Interpreting the Bible
by Stephen Renn
Interact Magazine 1998
Volume 9 Number 1
Throughout the history of the church, an attitude has prevailed that advocates a superficiality in our use of Scripture—a deliberate avoidance of reflection which opts for spontaneity rather than study. When this attitude manifests itself in the process of interpretation (ie the hermeneutical process) accurate exegesis is lost. In addressing the fundamentally important question of interpretation, several key issues emerge.
The Biblical Mandate for Biblical Interpretation
A number of New Testament passages spell out the central importance of the need for biblical interpretation:
Luke 24:27ff: In this passage we have the example of our Lord as exegete, Christ the interpreter. This incident took place on the day of His resurrection. The situation was one in which two disciples were perplexed about the death of Jesus and were unaware that He was alive. These men were slow to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures. From one angle their problem was one of biblical understanding. Jesus dealt with that problem by ‘explaining’ the things concerning Himself from Moses and the prophets. Then, recounting their experience, the men declared that Jesus ‘opened’ the Scriptures to them. Prior to Jesus’ interpretation, these Scriptures were in some sense closed to them. The situation of ‘closedness’ was changed to ‘openness’, and understanding took place. The activity of Jesus constituted a clarifying function (Acts 16:14; 17:3).
Acts 8:26ff: In Philip’s dialogue with the Ethiopian eunuch, the situation was literally one of an open Bible, but without understanding. When Philip asked the eunuch whether he understood what he was reading, he replied, ‘How can I unless someone explains it to me?’ So Philip performed an interpretive and expository function. Four significant observations may be gleaned from this passage:
1. This interaction was initiated and controlled by the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:26,29,39).
2. Interpretation of Scripture involves human instrumentality.
3. The interpretation given by Philip was necessary for the understanding of Scripture.
4. The focus of this interpretation was christological, emphasising that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the Isaiah 53 prophecy.
Acts 18:24ff: In this meeting between Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos was ‘powerful in the Scriptures’ and ‘zealous in spirit’. He was teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, but only knew the baptism of John. This indicated a certain lack in Apollos’s knowledge concerning the fulfilment of Scripture in Jesus. Then we are told that Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and explained to him ‘more accurately’ the way of God. Here is a situation that points to the clear need for interpreting the Scriptures.
2 Tim.2:15: In this text, Paul is commanding Timothy to engage in an accurate handling of God’s Word (literally: ‘to cut in a straight line’). The emphasis is on the correct orthodox interpretation of Scripture. The clear implication is that there is an illegitimate, unorthodox way of interpreting the Word of God, which is to be avoided. (See also 2 Pet.3:16; Heb.5:11ff).
These passages make it clear that there is a clear mandate in Scripture for the careful handling and interpretation of its content.
The Relationship Between Hermeneutics and Exegesis
The term ‘hermeneutics’ and its other forms are derived directly from Greek vocabulary. The key term is hermeneuowhich refers to the conveying of meaning through language. It has several meanings:
1. to interpret or explain both linguistic and non-linguistic matters(Heb.7:2; Luke 24:27; 1 Cor.12:10; 14:26).
2. to translate (Matt.1:23; Mk.15:22,34).
3. to express or indicate in language itself. This meaning does not occur in the New Testament.
The first meaning is the primary one associated with ‘hermeneutics’. However, all three senses of hermeneuo are closely interrelated, for translating involves interpretation of the text. Then language too is ‘interpretive’, for we ‘tell it as we see it,’ ie we speak from a particular point of view.
Traditionally, hermeneutics has been distinguished from exegesis. Both terms relate to the treatment of the text and hermeneutics is seen as the theory of which exegesis is the practice, eg John 1:18 tells us that the Son of God has ‘declared’ (ie exegeted or interpreted) who God is.
Hermeneutics has a logical priority over exegesis and is concerned primarily with methodology. Exegesis is therefore directed and governed by hermeneutics. It is also a concrete activity involving the use of a method and the application of principles to the text. This approach, however, can give rise to a serious misunderstanding: the logical priority of hermeneutics does not mean that exegesis is applied hermeneutics or that hermeneutics is more important than exegesis. Whoever subscribes to this approach runs a grave risk of severely distorting and inhibiting exegesis.
The history of biblical interpretation illustrates the fact that the danger described here is a real one. On the one hand we have the extreme of a post-modern ‘reader-centred’ hermeneutic, where the text of Scripture can mean anything to anyone in any situation with no possibility of gaining objective meaning. On the other hand there is, for example, the extreme literalism of a ‘classic’ Dispensational hermeneutic which fails to account for a legitimate symbolic use of language in many parts of Scripture, eg the prophetic canon. Nothing is further from the truth, however, than to suppose that one must have a fully-validated hermeneutical system before exegesis is possible.
It is very important to be aware of the hermeneutic situation as a whole. This situation is roughly the same as painting a picture or playing a musical instrument. Textbooks on method can only be written by, and be helpful to, someone who paints or plays a musical instrument. Thus hermeneutical method presupposes a familiarity with the text, and hermeneutical reflection is effective only where there is a valid understanding of the text. We want, therefore, to avoid two extremes: first, the pre-judging of hermeneutical method as superfluous or even harmful to the exegetical process; and secondly, the viewing of exegesis as merely the wooden application of a set of rules. What is needed is a balanced approach that maintains a reciprocal relationship between text and method in which the biblical text has the priority. In the end what is essential is that our biblical exegetical method promotes a true understanding of the text.
Inspiration and Interpretation
The most profound hermeneutical principle is that the Bible is God’s Word. It is in fact a ‘pre-hermeneutical assumption’. Our conviction that the Bible is the Word of God ought to be expressed. This understanding may not be called into question; it is a conviction relating to the text whose unique origins are constituted as the very breathed words of God.
Why is recognition of the Bible as God’s Word so important for hermeneutics? The Bible has God as its one author. Therefore, what it says is totally trustworthy. Its narratives are accurate; there is no falsification. The statements of Scripture are not contradictory and all have bearing on one another, that is, there is a wholeness, a unity, which characterises biblical revelation. This wholeness is seen in the literary framework of the Bible, in the context of which any given statement is to be understood.
The conclusion is therefore inescapable: the Bible enjoys a privileged position as the object of interpretation. The inspiration of Scripture means that the truth of what the Bible teaches is not something we have to validate before we accept it. It is this truth factor that the interpreter of Scripture properly presupposes from prior exposure to Scripture. In this respect, the Bible is in a unique position in relationship to all other historical texts. In the case of all other writings, interpretation must adopt a stance that is in essence ‘critical’, ie an assumption that since the text is written by human authors, there must be errors of some kind which have to be taken into account and ‘corrected’ accordingly if a valid text is to be established.
What we are saying, then, is that the assumption of the ‘historical-critical method’ is not valid for interpreting Scripture. Such a view is unacceptable, for it is based on the autonomy of the interpreter, and involves a denial of the divine inspiration of Scripture. This denial is a basic presupposition of this school of thought, which regards the Bible just like any other historical document, ie prone to error in matters of consistency and historical fact. There is therefore a need for a special hermeneutic in interpreting Scripture, which revolves around the concept of ‘self-authentication’, to which we now turn.
Scripture as Self-interpreting
The first issue to consider here is the unity of the Bible. The church’s recognition of this goes back to the early historical period, but the hermeneutical significance of this unity has best been grasped in the churches of the Reformation. Their cry of ‘sola Scriptura’ (‘Scripture alone’) is a pointedly hermeneutical principle.
The Bible is to be understood not in isolation, but rather in a unified sense. As a consequence it is argued that the Bible is its own best interpreter. Furthermore it means that the more obscure passage is to be interpreted in the light of the clearer one. The pervasive meaning of Scripture is always to be brought to bear on the specific passage. And it is the unity of Scripture that guarantees the pervasive meaning.
Secondly, the Bible manifests a ‘redemptive-historical’ unity. According to Scripture, God’s actions are never separated from His words, but are always associated with His redemptive actions. Verbal revelation always has either a descriptive or interpretive function. With regard to the redemptive actions of God, revelation is either authenticating or explanatory.
To describe an event is already to interpret it, for description involves a certain selectivity (Jn.21:25). This leads to the conclusion that revelation is the interpretation of redemption. The pattern of revelation appears to be that of announcement (ie prophecy) followed by the event itself, concluding with the explanation, illustrated by the following diagram:
(pre-) WORD—DEED—(post-) WORD
The whole of redemptive history conforms to this pattern. For instance, the Old Testament as a whole can be seen as a pre-interpretation preparing for the coming of Christ (ie the deed) and His work. Then in the New Testament, we have the post-interpretive word in the context of the apostolic church, which contains within it the future element of the return of Christ.
More particularly, the concept of a ‘Christocentric’ unity is crucial to a right understanding of the self-authenticating hermeneutic of Scripture.
The coming of Christ into the world is the focal point at which the various lines of biblical revelation converge, the nucleus around which all revelation clusters (Luke 24:44ff; Acts 3:18,24ff; 26;22ff; Jn.5:39ff; 1 Pet.1:10). We conclude that the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament revelation is an organic unity in all that it teaches and promises concerning the coming of Christ. The New Testament also makes it clear that the sum of Old Testament expectation is the person and work of Christ, particularly His death and resurrection.
It is important to emphasise the New Testament as a climactic statement establishing the boundaries that surround Old Testament redemptive revelation. There is nothing in the Old Testament which passes outside the scope of the New Testament, nothing that does not pass through the death and resurrection of Christ as its focus or centre. The more obscure is to be read in the light of the more plain; that is, the Old Testament is to be read in the light of the New Testament. And understanding of the Old Testament is not to be sought independently of the New, without reading the New back into the Old. Therefore, our hermeneutical stance must be self-consciously within the New Testament revelation.
The unity of the Bible is fundamentally important because it means that a particular passage or verse is not to be interpreted in isolation from other verses. It means that Scripture as a whole is the context for any passage. The Bible is a record of the history of revelation as it is focused in God’s work of redemption, climaxing in Christ. In seeking to rightly understand this record we engage in what is known as ‘biblical-theological method’.
It is important to stress that ‘biblical theology’ is not to be thought of as merely an exegetical option, but rather as essential to a proper understanding of the text within the whole of Scripture. The controlling context is the one which is imposed by the structure of biblical revelation itself, ie a redemptive-historical framework. Accordingly, all biblical exegesis is to be controlled by that framework. In biblical theology—the principle of context—the analogy of Scripture finds its most significant application.
What is suggested here does not intend preaching to be transformed into lecturing on the history of redemption, nor that Old Testament interpretation becomes a contest in discovering Christological allusions in every nook and cranny.
The statement that ‘Christ is found in every sentence of the Old Testament’ needs strict qualification. Any atomistic sense is to be entirely rejected; it is the ‘proof-text’ approach at its worst. We must recognise that every sentence in the Old Testament is placed in a context, and that context is eventually the ongoing history of God’s covenant dealings with His people. This history has only one direction, which focuses its attention on the suffering of Christ and the glory to follow. It is in this sense that the above statement is valid.
The Holy Spirit and Interpretation
It goes without saying that the interpreter of Scripture is wholly dependent on the Spirit of God for an accurate understanding of it. The activity of the Holy Spirit is an integrating one, bringing the text and the interpreter together, so-to-speak (Jn.14:26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 1 Cor.2:13).
There is validity in the process of interpreting Scripture only because it is the same Holy Spirit who has given us revelation and superintends the interpretation of that revelation. The exegesis of Scripture is only complete when the Holy Spirit interprets this for the people of God.
Footnote: I am greatly indebted to Dr Richard Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, USA, whose instruction in Biblical Hermeneutics provided me with the impetus for this article.
Rev Stephen Renn is a lecturer in Old Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC).
© Rev Stephen Renn (1 March 1998)