Bible Problems: Part 2–Continuing Thoughts

Posted: May 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

I am thankful to the Lord for Godly friends who are part of my life.  The gift of Christian friendship is often overlooked and neglected.  I pray that I never cease to give thanks for the faithful followers of Jesus whom I have come to know.  Justin Sok is one such man.  Justin and I go back to our days at Porter Memorial Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  There Justin was in the student ministry while I was in the college ministry.  In those days, as Justin would no doubt admit, we were a bit more prideful and arrogant than hopefully we are today.  In fact, as Justin and I moved on we had some heated discussion (or arguments) in the blogsphere.  Those days, I am thankful to say, are gone.  Anyway, today I count Justin as a friend and I find it is wise to listen to him and consider what he has to say.

So when Justin sent me a message after my last post, I stopped to evaluate his critique.  He read the post and said that it contained some good thoughts, but he also raised an important question: Why was there no mention of letting the Bible interpret the Bible?  No mention of reading the Bible in its own context?  At first I thought, “I addressed that…can’t he read?”  But, as I reread what I had written, I find that I was assuming too much in my writing and not making the issue Justin has raised very clear.  And I think it is an important enough point to add a bit on this very topic.

Justin is right to say that the Bible needs to be read in context and be allowed to help interpret itself.  This principle of biblical interpretation is known as the “analogy of faith.”  The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates the idea in the following way:  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (Westminster Confession, 1.9). Although there are inappropriate ways to use this principle, rightly understood it points us in the right direction when dealing with apparent Bible problems.

Stated simply, when we come to a difficult passage in the Bible, we need to look to the Bible itself to help us work through the issue.  This is why I pointed the reader to concordances.  I think a good concordance will guide the reader to other portions of Scripture that will shed light on the issue at hand.  When we do this we are letting the Bible speak for itself.

Now, more importantly, and I think more to Justin’s point, we need to remember to read the Bible in its own grammatical-historical context.  Robert Stein has said, “The way an author helps his readers understand the meaning he seeks to convey is through context” (Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules, pg. 57).  And what Stein means by context is “the shared pattern of meaning willed by the author in the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters surrounding the text”(Stein, pg. 57).  Context is king!  When we come to a difficult issue in the text we need to stop and make sure we have read what is surrounding the specific verse, phrase, paragraph, etc.  Have we read the entire chapter?  Do we know the flow of the argument?  What is the author dealing with in this portion of the Bible?  Understanding this principle is paramount to rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

So, we look at grammar.  What genre are we reading?  What are the rules that should govern our interpretation of poetry, apocalyptic literature, or historical narratives?  We look at the argument being made in the verse, paragraph, phrase, chapter, preceding chapters, and larger argument of the entire book.  We ask where we are on the timeline of redemptive history to give us insight to what the author knows and has seen.  In other words, we do not take a verse and interpret it as if it were written in a vacuum.  It is tied to what is around it and must be interpreted that way.

I end with an illustration that may bring the issue into focus.  Ashley is 15.  She is a member of First Church and is always faithful to be at church functions.  She has a lot of friends in the student group and is seen as a leader.  One day she walked into church feeling tired and under the weather.  It was obvious to her student pastor that she was out of sorts.  So, he approached her and asked her if she was feeling okay.  Ashley began to tell her student pastor how she was feeling sick the previous night and was unable to sleep.  As they talked, Lauren (Ashley’s friend) walked by and overheard her tell the student pastor that she “had drunk too much last night and wasn’t feeling well.”  That was all Lauren heard…and all she needed to hear!  She immediately began to spread the rumor around the student ministry that Ashley was caught drinking and was hung-over at church that morning!  The problem?  Lauren had not heard the context of the conversation.  If she had, she would have heard Ashley telling the student pastor that because she was feeling sick she had taken some medicine and in so doing “drank too much.”  But because a sentence was taken separately from the larger conversation, a rumor spread and gossip ran wild.  If Lauren would have heard the conversation as a whole, in its own context, then the rumor mill would have never begun to churn.

The importance of reading the Bible in context and letting it help interpret itself is another way that we work through difficult issues in God’s Word.  In fact, it may be the most important.  Thanks to Justin for pointing out the deficiency in the last post so I could add these thoughts and hopefully point the reader towards reading, interpreting, and understanding God’s Word more readily.

  1. Justin says:

    Brother, your last post was helpful in pointing us to some very good resources to aid in our study of God’s Word. I think what you have added here compliments that very well. I pray God uses both posts to drive people to his Word.

    Let me also make a suggestion on two books that have been helpful for me in thinking about Bible study:

    Michael Lawrence’s Biblical Theology for the Local Church and Don Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. (Micahel’s book talks about Carson’s though so you could really skip Carson if you wanted to).

    Thanks again for your post Jonathan!

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