At a men’s group this morning, we discussed how to interpret the Bible. Our conversation reminded me of a booklet I wrote: “This Is What Is Written: What the Scriptures Say about Their Interpretation.” Below is the introduction:
For most Christians, how to interpret the scriptures is central to their beliefs. After all, the way someone interprets the Bible is closely related to how they understand and live out their faith.
In this day and age, many methods of biblical interpretation have been advanced. Some favor a literal interpretation, some a wholly symbolic one. Others believe that no book of the Bible can be understood unless we first study the historical and cultural context in which it was written. Tradition also plays a major role in our approach to the Bible. What tends to be ignored as we consider how to interpret the scriptures is what the scriptures themselves teach us about interpretation. It seems the Bible is our authority except when it comes to understanding what it says. The Bible contains, not only direct commentary about its interpretation, but examples of interpretation given by those that wrote it. The purpose of this booklet is to examine what the scriptures say about themselves and to discover how they can guide our understanding of them.
“Hermeneutics” is a big word describing the methods we use to interpret the Bible. A person’s “hermaneutic” is the lens through which they read and approach scripture. In “This Is What Is Written” I show that Christ was the hermeneutic of New Testament authors. The Christ-hermeneutic is revelatory. In other words, God must open our minds before we can see Jesus in scripture (Luke 24:45-46). Without revelation, we just read laws, historical accounts, poems, prophecies, letters, etc (2 Cor. 3:14-16).
There is value in grasping the literal and historical aspects of scripture. We can also extrapolate principles and morals by comparing multiple passages. But scripture tells us the full meaning of any verse, passage, or book is found in the person and work of Christ. Seeing Christ in scripture doesn’t negate other senses of a given text. But if Christ isn’t revealed in a particular passage our understanding of it is truncated and incomplete.
Jonah provides a clear example of what we’re saying. Jesus taught that Jonah was a figure of His death and resurrection: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40; Jonah 1:17-2:10). It is important to note that the book of Jonah contains no explicit messianic prophecy; it is only the history of Jonah’s flight from the Lord and his ministry to Nineveh.
Let’s imagine that Jesus never taught us how to understand the story of Jonah. Modern methods of interpretation would be blind to the figure of Christ’s death and resurrection. The literalist would merely read the events laid out in the book. The historicist would add cultural and geopolitical dimensions to our reading. The moralist would talk of sin, repentance, and God’s law. But none of these hermeneutics would see Jonah in the fish as Christ in the tomb.
The following is from the conclusion of “This Is What Is Written.” My constant prayer is that the Lord would give us “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17).
Having surveyed New Testament approaches to interpreting scripture, we need to ask why New Testament modes of interpretation are infrequently employed and are even disparaged in our age. Interpretations plagued by subjectivism have discredited the idea of revelation in the minds of some. Fundamentalism has played a role by insisting on a literal interpretation. Other modern assumptions spring from a materialistic worldview which is critical of spiritual reality, prophecy, and revelation. Some attempt to reconcile modern unbelief with Christian faith by embracing dispensational theology. Dispensational theology says revelation and communication from God ended with the apostles. This “have your cake and eat it too” theology is another factor affecting interpretation.
These, and other ways of thinking, have largely made New Testament interpretive approaches off limits. If the apostles preached in this day and age, many of us would consider their understanding of scripture simple-minded or heretical. This should give us pause. With all our interpretive prohibitions, could we have received the gospel if God announced it in our age instead of in the time of Christ? Are we truly able to receive it now? If the things set forth here are accurate, Christians need to face this hypocrisy: We accept the testimony of the Bible yet snub the modes of interpretation by which early Christians received that testimony.