Understanding Difficult Passages and the Four Legs of Bible Interpretation

This is part one of a three-part article about interpreting difficult passages in the Bible. These articles do not deal with the spiritual aspects of Bible interpretation (prayer, humility) or the technical part of interpretation (textual criticism, bibliology). Concerning the former, spiritual disciplines are assumed as being the priority; and about the latter, these articles are meant to be for diligent lay-people in the church as practical help when encountering a difficult Bible passage in study or reading. Part 1 presents the main idea behind needing a systematic approach to Bible interpretation. Part 2 presents four practical rules of interpretation. And Part 3 will be a case study from my current studies in the Gospel of Matthew. 

It is inevitable that every student of the Bible who tries to do faithful exegesis and study of God’s Holy Scripture will come to a passage or selection of Bible verses that cause them to wince with uncertainty. What is the author saying? What does it mean or not mean? Is the Bible really saying that? Frankly, if Bible students, both lay and professional (authors, pastors, professors, etc.), do not regularly encounter difficult Scripture texts, then they are not faithfully studying the Bible as they ought to be. Always having the “right” answer -easily and naturally-to what the Bible writes does not prove giftedness or blessing, but is actually a red warning flag of poor study and perhaps even pride. That is not to say that uncertainty is always a good thing. The issue I am talking about is not a general uncertainty over the main and plain things of God’s revealed truth, but a willingness to attempt to shed presuppositions and to labor to think through and understand difficult passages in the Scripture, perhaps even coming to a certain interpretation.

Some passages of the Bible can be difficult even though we absolutely understand what they mean. The difficulty of those kinds of texts lies in them teaching us hard things that press up against our natural and sinful desires. These kinds of difficult passages are difficult not because they are hard to understand, but because we are encased with a sinful flesh that often doesn’t like truth to rub up against our fleshly sensitivities. But most of the time, for the humble and diligent Christian, passages are difficult not because we don’t like what the Scripture says, but simply because some aspect of understanding is missing in us and we just don’t get it. Whether it is a linguistic, translational, cultural, historical, or geographical barrier distancing us from the text; or the problem is our education, knowledge of issues, or simply a mental block that keeps us in the dark; we ought not to become discouraged when we meet a passage of Scripture that is difficult to understand.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Bible is the infinitely, intelligent God communicating with finitely, ignorant man. Thus God will say things that we simply cannot fully grasp. But this is no excuse; we are commanded to be diligent to study Scripture, operating with the believing assumption that God wrote it so that we would understand it and do it. Thus we must be determined to labor until we are mentally and spiritually worn out attempting to understand difficult passages of Scripture. Sometimes this means taking a break and coming back to it later when perhaps we have more knowledge and skill in thinking and interpretation.

Proper Bible interpretation is guided by literary rules, and these basic rules can be illustrated by the four legs of a table. The four legs, supporting most tables, are not all necessary to have equal strength and firmness, but when all four legs are strong and sturdy together, then it is easier to rest firmly on that table. I am not going to be talking about the obvious spiritual disciplines such as prayer, humility, faith or even supernatural Spiritual guidance. In fact, those disciplines are more important than the four rules or “legs” of Bible interpretation; thus I am assuming that we are involving those spiritual disciplines (or at least praying for them) in the four steps of Bible interpretation. If we are not, then these four steps or “table legs” are useless, academic endeavors and ought not be attempted at all.

So what then are the four legs that hold up good Bible interpretation? Though all four are very important, I believe that this order of priority is also slightly important. And though in our study of a difficult passage, we may work back and forth through the four, when all things seem to be equal, it is good to arrange the “legs” in this order of priority: context, grammar, theology, history. [1] Part two will work through each of these four legs providing practical help in using them in Bible interpretation.

[1] Some might question the place of theology third after context and grammar, “But shouldn’t theology be first?” I answer that with a yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if our interpretation of a difficult passages contradicts or undermines the theology of the rest of the Scripture, then we must reject that particular interpretation as valid, but the other extreme is just as dangerous and probably more common among evangelical Christians, rejecting an interpretation because it bothers our already decided upon theological ideas. So in another sense, no, we resist the natural tendency to allow our perceived understanding of a system of theology or particular theological point force a text to mean something it may not mean. We should always allow our theological systems to be formed and framed by the whole of the Scripture, while not pressing our interpretations onto a text simply because it allows us to maintain our theological system. In other words, allow the plain and main things of the Bible to form your theology and resist the urge to approach a text with a firm presupposition that will not entertain any other interpretations because it might make you have to rethink some aspect of a possibly even good system of theology. That is why I place “theology” third. Not that it is less important, but we must address the issue of theology having already though through context and grammar. A simple way to think about this in order to see how we are doing in this area is to be careful that we are asking, “What does this text mean?” and not “What must this text mean?”

 

2 Comments

  1. […] This is the second part of three articles concerning studying difficult passages of the Bible. In order to be more complicated, I have divided part 2 into two articles. It was just too long of a selection. Today I am writing about the first two legs of Bible interpretation, and the last two tomorrow. Finally, the series will close with walking through a case study in the Gospel of Matthew. To read the first part of the series click here, part 1 .  […]

    September 1, 2016
  2. […] is the second half of part 2 discussing difficult Bible texts and the four legs of interpretation. Part 1 and Part 2a can be found by clicking on those links. The last installment will be a case study in […]

    September 2, 2016

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