Friday, July 26, 2013

On the “Interpretation” of Scripture

“A Matter of Interpretation”

Does this phrase set you on edge? If so, it is not a surprise. Most Christians have attempted at some time to share some scriptural insight only to be rebuffed by the remark, “Well, that’s a matter of interpretation”, “That’s YOUR interpretation” or “I have a different interpretation”.

I can vividly recall for example, an instance in which a nice lady challenged me to show “just one scripture” that actually says “baptism saves”. This dear lady obviously thought it impossible that such a passage could be present within the Holy Scriptures. But with little delay, I took her to 1 Peter 3:21:

And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you--not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ – 1 Peter 3:21
(all scriptures are from the NAS ‘77).

She was obviously flabbergasted that I was able to find such a passage but made a quick recovery, saying – you probably guessed - that she had “a different interpretation” of the passage. My own response was to ask, simply, what her “interpretation” was. But when asked for her “interpretation” of the passage, she had none, apart from saying, “Well, it doesn’t mean THAT!” Repeated appeals that she explain what she believed the passage did mean proved fruitless.

It is not my intention to ridicule this lady. But hers is an apt illustration of the way the phrase “a matter of interpretation” is often used. Persons employing such phrases often have no alternative interpretation at all. They simply do not care for the obvious meaning of the passage put before them. It can be difficult for those who already count themselves "believers" and “saved” to accept scriptural truth concerning salvation that is so foreign to their religious training and tradition. But to admit that they simply do not "believe" the teaching of a certain passage is emotionally devastating. Caught between a rock and hard place, grasping at the straw of "a different interpretation" provides them an emotional refuge. But unfortunately, this emotional refuge is one in which people hide from God’s truth.

Many of us have had such encounters while trying to teach someone the way of the Lord more adequately. We tend therefore to feel icky when people start talking about “matters of interpretation”. Such language definitely raises a red flag.

Are matters of doctrine open to interpretation, at all?

Someone recently asked me a question of this sort. It is actually a good and thought provoking question and one that might even seem to have some scriptural basis.

2 Peter 1:20 tells us that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation".

Here is a scripture that reminds us that simply doing our own thing in the interpretation of scripture is bad practice. And in today’s postmodern world (and church) it is a very common bad practice. It is quite na├»ve for us to suppose that the “what is true for you may not be true for me” mindset has found no foothold in today’s Christendom. “What does this scripture mean to you?” has become a common question in many of today’s Bible study groups. But this is the wrong question. The right questions are “What does this passage mean?” or “What did it mean to those to whom originally written?” or (best of all) “What meaning did the author of this passage (or the one speaking in the passage) originally intend?”

We must take care, though, not to react against today’s interpretive anarchy by disregarding the need for any interpretation at all. And some have actually done this. I have encountered, on occasion, a mindset that says, “You don’t interpret scripture. You either believe it or you don’t!” In many cases, where the meaning of a passage is plain, this may be true. Believe it or not, no interpretation is needed. But before we embrace this idea as being valid in every case, we ought to consider that Paul reminded Timothy:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth – 2 Timothy 2:15

We will also do well to consider Peter’s statement that there are, in the writings of the apostle Paul, some things that are:

…hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction – 2 Peter 3:16

If every biblical concept is simple and the meaning of every passage plain why is “diligence” (2 Ti. 2:15) necessary in handling the word of truth? And since some of Paul’s writing is hard to understand (and Paul might have said the same of some things Peter wrote) how can we avoid the distortions that lead to destruction without some well thought out METHOD of Biblical interpretation?

Fortunately, most passages of scripture are straightforward in their meaning but there are exceptions.

The Need of Interpretation - Some examples:

I grew up in the Lord under the instruction of a faithful preacher who was fond of saying that if two passages of scripture appeared to disagree that we were misinterpreting at least one of them and maybe both. We work from a fundamental mindset that says “all scripture is inspired by God” which means – among other things – that “all scripture harmonizes” and that “scripture interprets scripture”. But what do we do when there is the appearance of disharmony? Consider the following examples:

Why is there no conflict  between Romans 3:24 and James 2:24?

On superficial reading, it is easy to suppose that there is a contradiction:


Romans 3:24 says, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."

James 2:24 says, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone."


Each of these passages speaks of faith and of justification. But one of them adds the word “not”; creating on the face of it, a contradiction. Many holding to the truth that “all scripture is inspired by God” have decided on account of this that James cannot be inspired and does not belong in scripture. For this reason the incredibly valuable and practical book of James is largely ignored in Protestant Theology. But the “problem” is not real, merely imagined – owing to a lack of diligence in biblical interpretation.

The problem seems to be lazy and superficial thinking. Careful Bible students will not stop reading with the word “faith”, as though the verses end there. Paul does not say “faith alone”, as James does. What Paul says is “faith apart from works of the Law”. We should not assume that Paul speaks of the exact same thing as James without a closer look. Neglect of contexts – which shed light on each writer’s meaning – is a mistake.

The larger context of Romans shows that Paul has been discussing the superiority of faith in the gospel over works of the Mosaic Law all along. Beginning from Romans 2:12 and continuing through Romans 3:31 we see the words, “the Law”, appearing 30 times in 16 different verses (NAS ‘77). And in each case, the word is capitalized, indicating that the translators believe it a reference to Moses’ Law. We understand fully that “faith is credited as righteousness” and rejoice in this fact. But Romans 3:24 speaks specifically of the Mosaic Law. Paul’s point is that keeping the Mosaic Law justifies no-one.

A look at the context of James – on the other hand - shows the kinds of work that (together with faith) DO justify. Two kinds of works are set forth. First, James speaks of works of personal goodness; i.e. benevolence to the poor (James 2:15-16; also 1:21). Second, it tells of works done by faith, as exemplified by the deeds of Abraham (James 2:21) and Rahab (James 2:25). These are different kinds of work entirely from the works defined in Moses’ Law (the works Paul has in mind at Romans 3:24).

Diligence in interpretation, paying attention to the details of both the verses themselves and overall contexts of each passage reveals there is no contradiction at all between the teaching of Paul and James. The need of such diligence in interpretation is aptly illustrated in this example.

Consider Romans 11:26a in light of John 8:24 & Matthew 23:33.

Romans 11:26a tells us that "all Israel will be saved".

Based largely on this snippet of scripture, together with a failure to “rightly divide” God’s word between Old and New Covenants, many have assumed that all Jews are saved, whether they are in Christ or not. In fact a group of Evangelical Leaders (whose names you would recognize) have agreed together that evangelizing among the Jews is unneeded.

But our Lord Jesus did “evangelize” among the Jews. Speaking to the Jews, said this:


"...you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins." (and)

"You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?"
(John 8:24 and Matthew 23:33)


How can Jesus have said such a thing to any of the Jews, if all of them are to be saved? Here again is an interpretive problem. Romans 11:26a, taken superficially and literally, flies in the face of the most basic beliefs of Christianity; that NO ONE can be saved without Jesus Christ. It cannot mean THAT but if it does not mean THAT what does it mean?

Some fairly heavy lifting in the work of interpretation is called for in resolving this “conflict”. And to be prepared for that work a good overall familiarity with scripture generally and Romans in particular is needed.

Our first and perhaps best key in understanding what Paul means by "all Israel" (Romans 11:26a) might be found in Romans 2:28-29.

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.  But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. - Romans 2:28-29

 In these verses, Paul defines the difference between "true Jews" and those who are Jews according to blood lines (the flesh) only.  “True Jews” are those who have had a circumcision “of the heart, by the Spirit”. In another of his writings – Colossians 2:11-12 – Paul speaks of what is no doubt the very same thing; a “circumcision of Christ” that takes place in the process of becoming a Christian:

and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
 – Colossians 2:11-12 (NAS ‘77)

The true Jew, therefore, is a Christian convert, from either the Jewish or Gentile races.

Having reached that conclusion, the interpreter can follow up with a THOROUGH study of Romans, Chapters 9 through 11, bearing in mind that the Old Testament references given there were originally written to the Jews by their own prophets. By this process we should come to understand that Romans 11:26a is stating that all “true Jews” – the faithful remnant – will find their salvation by receiving Christ. Are the Jews still "God's chosen people"? Yes, but only the true Jews, those who have received Jesus Christ!

As Peter points out, Christians - regardless of racial origin - are now God's chosen people - 1Peter 2:9-10.

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR
God's OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

On this matter John the baptist, the apostle Paul and our beloved Savior are all agreed, as can be seen by quick review of passages such as Matthew 3:9; Galatians 3:7, 26-29 and John 10:14-16.

So, is the interpretation of doctrine necessary?

The answer will depend on which doctrine we are talking about. Much scripture carries a straightforward message, and the “interpretation” of such passages often amounts to a doctrinal dance intended to deny the plain meaning. But there are some things in scripture which are indeed “hard to understand, which the unstable and untaught twist to their own destruction”. In those areas, we must be prepared and willing to engage in the diligent work of “rightly dividing” (interpreting) the Lord’s doctrine as given in the Word.