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Apologetics Lesson 10: Can we understand the Bible?

July 24, 2012

One of the most common objections to the Christian faith has nothing to do with the origin of the Bible, God, or creation. It has to do with Christians. Basically it can be summed up as, “If the Bible is the guide book for the Christian then why are there so many types of Christians who disagree about what the Bible teaches on so many different areas?” The charge is simple, if you can make the Bible say anything you want it to say, then the Bible must not be clear. It cannot be understood. Therefore, one person’s interpretation should be just as good as any other’s.

I have to admit, of all the objections to the faith we have reviewed, this is the one with which I most sympathize. And that is simply because it is true. If you gather up six theologians and ask them what the Bible says in a disputable area you are likely to get seven different and sometimes conflicting responses (theologians are not known for their math skills.) It saddens me to see so many different “Christian” groups all using God’s Word to teach and defend doctrines He finds abhorrent. I am not naive enough to believe that every person or group claiming to speak for God actually does but to the secular world we are all the same and the apologist is left to clean up the mess when witnessing to this culture. So let’s unpack this and see how we can respond to the challenge against the Bible’s clarity.

Can you make the Bible say anything you want it to say?

How can anyone take the message of the Bible seriously since one interpretation of the Bible is just as valid as another? This is the charge we are faced with. The hard part about responding to it is it is true. People can, and do, make the Bible say whatever they want. In the past, Scripture has been used to support slavery, prejudice, and is now being used by some to support homosexuality. How do people do this? It is easy when you ignore basic rules of interpretation.

The Bible is the Word of God.

Before we get into the particulars of interpretation it is helpful to reemphasize our baseline presuppositions. Our first, and main, presupposition is that the Bible is the Word of God. Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16) via a process we call inspiration. God has communicated to us a specific message of truth, using written language as the Holy Spirit “carried along” the human authors (2 Peter 1:20-21) This is significant; God did not communicate truth to us by giving us “holy stones.” How would you interpret a stone? However, because God wrote us a book choosing the right words, making the right sentences, following the rules of written language we can interpret what God has written. Scripture is clear in that it was meant to be understood
John 20:31 – “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Luke 1:4 – “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Mark 12:24 – “Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
1 John 5:13 – “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

God warns us to interpret the Bible correctly. We are to correctly handle the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15) and there are consequences of improperly interpreting the Bible (2 Pe. 3:15-16). The science of Biblical interpretation is called Hermeneutics. In this there is a right approach and a wrong approach. The right approach is called the Historical-Grammatical method. Historical means real events, real people, (not just symbolic stories.) Grammatical means real words with real meaning, taken in context. You do not make up your own definitions. (This does allow for the use of symbolic language. Not everything is taken literally). The wrong approach is known as the Spiritual-Allegorical method. Spiritual means ignoring the historical—grammatical approach and stretching the text to make it say what you want it to say. Using proof-texts pulled from their context to support a point rather than deriving the doctrine from the text. For example, Origen interpreted Noah’s Ark to have 3 meanings (literal, moral, and spiritual) to correspond to man’s body, soul and spirit: salvation from the Flood, salvation of the believer from a specific sin and salvation of the church through Christ. Allegorical means the literal meaning of the text is either not the true meaning, or only one of many meanings. The elements of each passage have a corresponding spiritual reality, which is the “real” or ultimate meaning of the passage. Everything is symbolic. For example, Popes used this method to uphold papal supremacy. Innocent III taught that the two great lights in Gen. 1 refer to the order of authority on earth. Thus, the sun symbolized spiritual authority (i.e., the pope) and the moon symbolized civil authority (the emperor). Boniface VIII referring to Luke 22:38, taught that the two swords held by the disciples meant that the apostles were authoritative in both the secular and spiritual kingdoms. Another example can be found in the interpretation of the John 11 story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This was interpreted to be a vivid picture of the church going through the Rapture. Lazarus is a symbol of the church. Job has also been seen as the story of Israel going through the tribulation and Genesis is seen as not literal, just a story about good versus evil.

Rules of Bible Interpretation

The following rules of Biblical interpretation will help you to correctly handle the word of God. These are not intended to be exhaustive and cannot fully explain everything in Scripture but they go a long way toward preventing some of the more fantastic methods of interpretation that we seen in our world today. The first step for a believer should always be prayer. The Holy Spirit is our ultimate interpreter and illuminate of the Bible. However, this does not mean that we can go outside the basic rules of language and interpretation and find something new because we “feel” the leading of the Spirit. Remember, God inspired His word in language and language is meant to be understood in the context in which it is given. The Spirit’s job is to provide understanding not meaning that is foreign to the language of the text.

Rule # 1: Read the Bible as you would read any other non-fiction book.
If you were to write a book, you would expect people to follow the same standard rules of language in reading it, that you did in writing it. You would assume that your readers would know they should not change the meaning of your words or ignore the context in which they were given. When God wrote the Bible, He used standard rules of written language. He expects you to follow these same standard rules of language in reading it. You are not free to ignore the normal, literal and historical meaning of words, and spiritualize the meaning of the text to make it say whatever you want it to say. We do not do this with the morning paper and we should not do it with the Scriptures.

Rule # 2: Before asking what a verse means, always determine its context.
Context is the key to determining the meaning of any written document, Biblical or otherwise When you take a verse out of context, you distort the message that God intended for the verse to convey. For example, a person could claim that the Bible teaches atheism, since Psalm 14:1 declares, “there is no God.” The context of this verse however, reveals that it is “the fool” who claims that there is no God. This is probably the most important step in interpreting a passage of Scripture. It is also one of the most often ignored rules.

Rule # 3: Always interpret Scripture with Scripture
This is otherwise known as the Analogy of Faith and is based on the proposition that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. We should always compare Scripture with Scripture, when interpreting the Bible. For example, you are not free to make up your own interpretation of the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:1-9, since we find that Jesus Himself gives the meaning of the parable in Matthew 13:18-23. This is a very easy and obvious example but we see the NT writers interpreting the OT again and again throughout. This is a consistent and Biblical concept.

Rule # 4: The meaning of individual words in the Bible can provide a key to understanding
God chose the exact wording of the Bible to convey His truth to you. Be very careful not to change the meaning of the words God used in the Bible, by assigning your own definitions to them. God chose specific words to convey a specific message of truth.

Rule # 5: Understand that the Bible was written to various groups of people and individuals.
Certain parts of the Bible were written to an individual or a particular group of people. For example, Mary is told in Luke 1:31, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Clearly this promise was given to Mary and it is for Mary alone. It would be wrong to try to claim this promise for yourself. The Bible cannot mean to us what it never could have meant to them. Understanding who the audience was can go a long way to helping us understand the Scripture.

Again, these rules are not exhaustive nor are they guaranteed to keep everyone away from any kind of error. One of the hardest things to get used to in Christianity is that we will not alway all agree as to what the Bible says about every point of doctrine. Controversies of various degree have been raging since the beginning of the church. Sometimes these are of important matters such as the deity of Christ. Other times they are less important like the specific mode of baptism (dunking vs. sprinkling.) We need to always remember that each of us are sinful human beings and capable of error. We should unite on the essential doctrines of our faith and allow grace to reign in the nonessentials.

Bible Study Tools

We are uniquely blessed in our day and age to have so many resources available to learn God’s Word. Often the new Christian can be overwhelmed as to where to begin when studying a passage of Scripture The following is a simple method to Bible Study that anyone can do. This method should always begin with prayer that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the Scripture. He is the ultimate interpreter.

Scripture/Translations
The Bible itself is the main source for Bible study (naturally.) Fortunately, we have many options available. Compare different translations. This can provide much insight into the meaning of difficult passages. Look up the passage in at least two formal translations (ESV & NKJV, NASB & KJV, etc.) Then look to one or two dynamic translations (NIV, NLT, CEV, etc.) And then look to the paraphrases (Living Bible, Message, etc.) From this you. Will gain a solid understanding of what the passage. Says and how translators have interpreted it.

You can also study the original languages. This may include learning the languages or making use of study aids. Word studies can be helpful but you should always be careful that you do not use a word study in absence of context. A basic understanding of grammar and the ability to use a lexicon can be invaluable as it will allow you to see all the nuances of the original languages. Not many people have the opportunity to learn the languages but many people have the ability. When opportunities present themselves it is always to your benefit to learn the languages of the Bible. Be careful that you do not think you know more than you do. A little Greek or Hebrew can be dangerous when wielded by a novice.

Cross-References/Concordances
Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Clear passages can be a great help interpreting less clear passages. Compare the passage in question with similar passages. Cross-References, as found in most reference Bibles, can show where similar and parallel passages referenced and provide some additional information. Another, and possible better, source for Scripture references are topical references where passages are arranged by topic in lists or chains. Two good examples of this is the Thompson Chain Reference Bible, and Nave’s Topical References. Both are good resources to have in your library. Remember that these are collected by human beings and not part of the inspired Scripture. They can be wrong.

A concordance can also be a valuable tool for word studies. A concordance is a listing of all the word uses in the Bible. This can be an overwhelming thing to those not familiar with it but it can be a good study aid to find similar themes by word. It can also be used to find a passage which you remember words from but cannot recall the reference. Concordances that reference the original languages are a must. These collect the English words but also reference the original language. Strong’s Concordance is good example of this. As always, be careful to consider context with word studies. Word meanings can change or gain nuance depending on the context of the passage. Just because the author uses the same word does not mean he is trying to communicate the same thing.

Commentaries/Dictionaries
We have had a wealth of wisdom and knowledge available in the two millennia since Christ walked the earth. It is foolish to think that we are completely alone in our study of the Bible. When you consult commentaries you do need to keep in mind the presuppositions of the commentator. This will require research about the author and their particular doctrinal convictions. Study Bibles are typically abridged commentaries along with the Scripture. These tend to be compiled and edited by more. Than one person so they can be more reliable. .

Bible dictionaries can provide information about biblical lands and culture. We are over two thousand years removed from the setting of the Bible and it is safe to say that things have changed. Dictionaries can provide a link to the past and an insight into the background of a book or passage to help see through the eyes of the original audience.

Church/Church Leadership
Our Christian walks are not meant to be taken alone. This applies to Bible study as much as it does for ethics and encouragement. We all have, or should have, a church family to which we can turn for help and accountability. There are many people within your local church who can aid your Bible study. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you. Are the first one to ever struggle with a passage of Scripture. Likely, there is someone in your local church when has also struggled with the same passage. You also have the church leadership. Your pastor, elders, deacons, and teachers can also be a source.

Conclusion

You do not need to be a pastor or seminary student to do good Bible Study. Do not think that everyone who has these credentials is always right. We are all fallen human beings and prone to error. The Holy Spirit can provide illumination regardless of education. There is much you can learn from your own personal Bible study. Sometimes the most valuable lesson comes from a gem you mined yourself and you. will be better equipped to teach others. Finally, remember that you are not alone. As a Christian, you have a long history of godly men who have come before you and there are many tools which are easily available to help you. You also have your church, church leaders, and teachers. Don’t be afraid to consult them. With such a rich and deep history behind and before us we have a valuable system of checks and balances on our Biblical interpretation. If you come to a conclusion that no one has ever had before it is likely time to evaluate your position.

It is true that people use the Bible to support many doctrines and beliefs which are foreign to the Scripture. It is also true that there are many godly men and women within the church who disagree strongly on many doctrines. These are not objections to the Christian faith. They are objections against fallen humanity who are prone to error. Just because a book can be misused is no reason to reject it.

God bless.

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