This 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 the book of Matthew. These articles are meant to give practical help to the Bible student who encounters hard to understand passages in the Bible, spiritual disciplines and dependence is assumed.
Theology- After having worked through the context and grammar of a particularly difficult passage, we probably have an idea about what the text means. Sure, some of the details may still seem foggy, but we are getting there. At this point, the fruitful student must resist the urge to rush into commentaries to shortcut the work of interpretation. We need to check our current interpretation setting it along the overall theology of the Bible (main lines of Revelation) and along the theological emphasis of that particular book and author. We do this so that we can be certain that our textual interpretation is not contrary to the plainly revealed theology of the Scripture. So we are heresy hunting against ourselves! For example, if our interpretation leads us to question the full divinity of Jesus Christ, we know our interpretation is flawed not the doctrine of Christ. How then do we do this without allowing our theological presuppositions to decide our interpretations? A couple of simple principles and rules can help us. The first principle being that we hold to the unity of Scripture. James and Paul did not have a different theology of salvation, one of works and the other of grace. Rather James and Paul had the same Spirit directing them to express different applications of the same theology of salvation by grace alone which produces godly works. The second principle goes back to our belief in the perspicuity of Scripture. That is that we hold the most important and significant doctrines of God, man, salvation, trinity, etc. are clearly taught throughout the Bible and that no doctrine essential to faith and practice hinges upon one verse or obscure sentence. Therefore, we must not allow our interpretation to disagree with clearly taught theology, and we must interpret the seemingly veiled and obscure passages in light of the clear and plentiful passages.
While doing a theology check, I might find myself having to go back to the context or the grammar to find out what it is I missed to bring me to an interpretation that contradicts the clear theology of the rest of the Bible. To be sure, this is a labor intensive struggle. This means that I will need to regularly be reading large portions of Scripture, systematic theologies and relying upon my pastors and mentors to help me see where I may be blind to particular theological blunders. But it is well worth it to have worked through the context of a difficult passage, to have outlined the grammar, and having compared it with clear and important theology, to discover that I am still consistent with God’s truth. But there is one last leg in the table, and it is also an important one.
History- This last leg is a historical one, but perhaps it would be better served by tweaking the meaning of “history” to include both living and dead history. That is, now I need to consult multiple sources perhaps both living and dead, written and sermonic, academic and devotional to see how faithful people of God both in history past and in the current historical period have attempted to make sense of the difficult passage. This is mostly done through good evangelical commentaries. How many commentaries should a student research and what kind should they be? Frankly, availability is often a factor. Good commentaries, because of the time and energy it takes to write and publish them are often quite expensive. Rely upon the advice of your pastors to help you find good authors, or perhaps, even better, ask to borrow your pastors’ commentaries (but make sure to return them). Many older commentaries can be found cheaply on the internet and sometimes even for free. But a word of caution…google, yahoo, bing, and other internet search engines are not actually commentaries. Just resist the urge to do an internet search for that particular passage. Often the worst of the worst yet most confident of “Bible scholars” who know very little Scripture truth but know how to operate a camera or webpage skillfully will be your top results. The Bible tells us to seek to truly know those who labor among you, and I am saddened that many Christians will listen almost without discernment to conspiracy theories, theories about Bible codes and mysteries, and “professors” who they know nothing about…neither their character nor their gifts.
Back to the question, “How many commentaries should I consult?” Enough to get a sense of how Godly and learned men and women understand the difficult text and enough to have at least one dissenting opinion. Sometimes, our whole world is shocked because we cannot find anyone who agrees with our interpretation, and other times we are elated because we find that most good writers agree with our interpretation. Don’t just discard or accept your interpretation solely because of either extreme, but do take it to heart and mind that if none of the respected and godly scholars see value in your interpretation, that perhaps, personal certainty over your interpretation is not yet due. And if you find that your interpretation is the majority opinion, take a minority opinion and try to argue and reason through that with context, grammar and theology. I avoid listening to sermons about the text while I am trying to understand better. Mostly because good sermons are delivered with a passion that can sometimes unintentionally distract me from the merits or de-merits of the speakers particular interpretation.
But now, as I have faithfully examined the “table leg” of context, the “leg” of grammar, the “leg” of theology and finally the “leg” of history-all bathed in prayer and humble reliance upon the Spirit of God throughout the process, I have a much firmer and sturdy surface upon which to begin to apply God’s Word for my life that naturally flow from that, once difficult to grasp, text. If I am teaching or preaching, now I can begin to think through my grid of implications and applications, the audience, culture, illustrations, etc. Now I can begin to write my lesson or sermon.
I find this process invigorating and exciting and find that God uses the process as much, if not more, than the textual solution to bring about a greater knowledge, trust, and worship of him who teaches me through the Word. Rushing to the end and trying to use a text to “prove me right, someone wrong” or “to make a good point” or “to support my thesis” not only is unfaithful to be submissive to God’s Word, but actually shortcuts the process of sanctification God is seeking to work in me through the Word. And that is the goal of written revelation, to make us more like Christ in faith and conduct so that we might honor and glorify God.