How are we to interpret the Bible? Have you ever heard that saying,
"The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it?" Well,
that does settle it. The problem is, what does the Bible say?
W.T. Connor, the late professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist
Theological Seminary, used to say, "The Bible doesn't always mean
what it says, but it always means what it means."
Now, before you jump all over Professor Connor, let's try to
see what he means. For example, the Bible quotes Jesus as saying,
"if your eye offends you, pluck it out." There aren't very many
one-eyed people in our churches, yet we know that many struggle
with the "offending eye."
Why is that? Jesus didn't mean that if you sin with your eyes
that you should literally pluck them out. That wouldn't really
solve the problem anyway. Jesus was using a figure of speech.
There are many considerations in addition to metaphors and figures
of speech that must be taken into account in proper Biblical interpretation.
So, the Bible doesn't always mean what it says, but it always
means what it means. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation.
Here's a tough question for you: Which leg of a three-legged stool
is most important? The fact is that if anyone of the legs are
missing, the stool is of absolutely no use. A proper doctrine
of Scripture is the same way. There are three indispensable ingredients
to a proper doctrine of scripture and if any one of them is missing,
we don't have a proper doctrine of Scripture.
A Proper Doctrine
There are three indispensable ingredients to a proper doctrine
1. Do we have a reliable text? Can we be sure that the Bible
we use today faithfully transmits the original words of the original
2. Are we interpreting it properly? Does our method of interpretation
use accepted, scholarly methods designed to produce a faithful
3. Are we obedient to it? Do we allow the Scripture to inform
and transform our life?
Do We Have a Reliable
This section will deal exclusively with New Testament issues,
but the Old Testament issues follow a parallel analysis.
The New Testament consists of 27 separate "books". Each book
was written at a different time and books were not brought together
into a single "New Testament" until a couple of hundred years
after they were originally penned.
The earliest books of the New Testament were written on papyrus,
a writing material made from papyrus reeds. The books which eventually
came to form our New Testament were copied and passed on from
one church to another.
The earliest organized collection of New Testaments books were
the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As the collections
grew, the books were bound into book form. This form was called
None of the originals of the New Testament books are known to
exist today. They have probably long since passed into dust. The
question is whether the copies that we have today are reliable
copies. Can we be assured that the texts we use today are faithful
to the words written by the original authors?
When we examine all of the ancient copies of the New Testament
books which exist today, it is obvious that there are some differences
between them. Which copies should we rely on?
There is a whole branch of New Testament studies known as "textual
criticism." These scholars devote themselves to examining all
of the existing ancient copies of the New Testament scriptures
in order to try to arrive at a faithful text.
There are 96 papyri of portions of the New Testament known to
exist today. Only about 9 papyri were known as of 1900. Similarly,
there were only about 1,000 manuscripts of all types known as
of 1900. Today there are well over 5,000 manuscripts. Compared
other ancient literature, however, we can be more certain of the
true text of the Bible than any other ancient literature.
Bible Scholar and theologian John Warwick Montgomery stated:
"To be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books
is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity,
for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically
as the New Testament."
Do we have a reliable text? Absolutely.
The differences among the manuscripts that we have today are
very minimal. No doctrine of our theology is affected by the differences.
Kurt and Barbara Aland, the brilliant textual scholars, examined
seven of the best editions of the Greek New Testament text. They
found that in nearly two-thirds of the New Testament text the
seven editions of the Greek New Testament are in complete accord,
with no differences other than minor details such as spelling.
The differences which do exist, again, are very minimal. Most
of our modern English translations provide us with footnotes which
indicate where there is disagreement among ancient texts.
For example, the New International Version at 1 Thess 1.1 has
a footnote which indicates that some early manuscripts read "Grace
and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ"
rather than "Grace and peace to you."
We should be thankful for the work of these textual scholars
and their commitment to identify the original words of Scripture.
But if you and I could sit in on a meeting of these scholars and
listen to their debates and see the options they consider, we
would probably wonder what all the fuss is about. None of our
beliefs would change regardless whether Paul wrote "Grace and
peace to you" or "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ."
There are a few larger textual differences, but again, none of
them would change our beliefs or theology. For example, modern
scholars are virtually certain that the Apostle John didn't include
in his Gospel the account of the woman taken in adultery which
is found at John 7.53 - 8.11. Modern English versions also give
us this information in footnotes. This doesn't mean, however,
that John didn't write this account. Nor does it mean that this
incident never happened. Truthfully, there is nothing in this
account which is contrary to the rest of Scripture or the character
of Jesus. I believe it really happened whether John included it
in his Gospel or not. But nothing in our faith would have to be
changed whether the account is in our Bible or not.
There are other problems in these ancient texts that pose some
problems. The common Greek language (what is called the koine)
at the time the New Testament books were written used all capital
letters, did not have spaces between words and did not have punctuation.
This causes some problems because Greek is a synthetic language
rather than an analytical language.
In English, the order of words in a sentence determines their
function. A typical word order is noun + verb + direct object.
In Greek, the meaning of words is determined by the ending of
the word. The last word in the sentence could be either the subject,
the verb or the direct object and the translator determines this
by the ending of the word. However, modern scholarship has been
able to overcome all of these obstacles and provide us with a
reliable text as well as reliable translations.
The two most modern editions of the Greek New Testament are now
in complete agreement on the actual text of the New Testament.
These are the United Bible Society 4th edition and
the Nestle-Aland 27th edition.
Used By Modern Translations
The King James Version
The Greek text used by the translators of the King James Bible
wasn't as accurate as the Greek texts which we have today. Many
older and more reliable manuscripts have been discovered since
that time. Further, it appears that some portions of the Greek
New Testament used by the King James translators were actually
translated from Latin back into Greek because there were no Greek
manuscripts of some portions of the New Testament available. Obviously,
some errors crept into the Greek text when that happened.
Another consideration is that scholars understand the Greek language
in which the New Testament was written much better today. In fact,
this common, or koine, Greek was so different from classical (Attic)
Greek that scholars thought it was a special Holy Spirit language
up until the nineteenth century, when archeologists discovered
many common letters, deeds, and other documents written in the
same koine Greek.
But there's nothing wrong with the good, old King James Version.
The textual differences would not change any of our beliefs or
modify our theology. The English language of the King James has
never been surpassed for sheer beauty and most of the verses I
remember are verses that I learned in the King James Version.
I should warn you, however, that some people get very offended
if you criticize the King James Version.
When the Greek text upon which the King James New Testament is
based was published, the publisher, in order to improve his sales,
wrote (in Latin) in the front of the book, "What you have here,
then, is the text which is now universally recognized." It is
from this "puffing" of the publisher that this particular version
of the Greek New Testament came to be called the Textus Receptus,
that is, the "received text."
Some people attach the theological concept of verbal, plenary
inspiration to the Textus Receptus and get very militant about
it. They believe that if you criticize the Textus Receptus or
the King James Bible that you are committing a heresy.
The New American Standard
The New American Standard Bible primarily uses the Nestle-Aland
23rdedition text. The editors indicate, however, that
they may deviate from it when they believe that other texts are
The New American Standard Bible is updated periodically. The
last major update was in 1995. They may have switched to the Nestle-Aland
26th edition, but I don't have a copy of the 1995 revision
so I can't be sure. If you read the introduction, the editors
will tell you plainly which text they use.
New King James
The New King James Version uses the same Greek text as the King
James Version, namely, the Textus Receptus. The editors do provide
footnotes to indicate places in which the "Majority Text" or the
"Alexandrian Text" have different wordings which should be considered.
New International Version
The New International Version editors use an "eclectic" text,
which means that the editors used what they considered to be the
most accurate manuscripts available.
Do we have a reliable text? Absolutely.
Any given passage of Scripture has only one meaning: that is
the meaning the author intended for the original audience to understand.
The meaning never changes.
Arriving at this meaning is called exegesis.
Any given passage of Scripture has many applications. It may
be applied differently in different eras, among different people
groups, and even differently at different times in our own life.
Suggesting or proposing an application is called exposition.
Let's consider an example:
NIV 2 Corinthians 13:12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
What is the one meaning of this verse?
The word "greet" in the Greek is in the imperative, which means
it is a command.
Does this mean that if we are to be obedient to Scripture that
we must greet each other in worship with a "holy kiss"?
Remember, Scripture has only one meaning. The meaning in this
verse is clear. Paul was commanding the Christians in Corinth
when they come together for worship to greet one another with
a holy kiss.
Why would Paul have to command that? The church in Thessalonica
no doubt had members who came from very different social groups.
But there were to be no class distinctions in Christian churches.
Therefore, everyone was to be greeted the same.
Exposition: how would it apply to FBC Bosque Farms? Class distinctions
must not exist in our church either. However, in the culture of
Bosque Farms (and the United States), we don't greet each other
with kisses. The principle, however, remains.
When Christians at FBC Bosque Farms come together for worship,
they should greet each other cordially (a warm handshake, maybe
a hug) without regard to differences in secular position and prestige.
Exposition: how would it apply to Christians in house churches
in Saudi Arabia today? In the culture in Saudi Arabia, people
still kiss one another in greeting. Therefore, the command would
no doubt be the same - greet one another with a holy kiss.
HERMENEUTICS (the science of interpretation)
In order to get at the original meaning we need to look at the
1. The Historical/Cultural Context
2. The Literary Context
3. The Scriptural Context
4. The Analogy of Faith
The Historical/Cultural Context
Consider this example:
NIV Amos 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to
your husbands, "Bring us some drinks!"
What does this mean? The meaning would certainly be much clearer
to us if we knew that Amos was a prophet from the southern kingdom
of Judah who was prophesying in the northern kingdom of Samaria.
It would also help to know that Bashan was a very fertile region
which had excellent livestock pastures. Amos, being a cattleman,
would have a fine appreciation for the well-nourished bovine form.
Thus, Amos is no doubt prophesying against the wealthy women of
Samaria who care nothing about the plight of the poor and needy
and only care about satisfying their physical wants.
Consider another example. What does this statement mean?
"My good friends, this is the second time in our history that
there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with
Without knowing any more than what is written, we might recognize
"Downing Street" as the residence of the British prime minister.
The reference to the second time of peace with Germany suggests
some kind of victory speech after World War II.
The words, however, are actually those of Prime Minister Neville
Chamberlain, made in 1938, after his return from Munich where
Hitler successfully convinced him that England had nothing to
fear from Germany. What a difference in meaning just knowing the
date of the statement and the identity of the speaker! This wasn't
good news at all. This erroneous conclusion by Prime Minister
Chamberlain no doubt contributed to many unnecessary deaths in
World War II.
The Literary Context
The Bible is composed of many different types of literature. God
didn't override the human personalities of the authors in the
creation of Scripture. This means that we need to respect the
literary genre in which each author wrote. The Bible includes
historical books, law books, prophets, poetry, wisdom literature
(proverbs, etc)., apocalyptic, gospels & parables, and letters.
Poetry and proverbs, which by nature contain poetic license and
often use metaphors and exaggeration are not going to be interpreted
the same as historical books and law books.
Further, we must acknowledge the proper role of metaphors, figures
of speech, exaggeration and common expressions wherever they're
found in Scripture. For example, we all talk about the sun coming
up in the morning even though we know that the sun doesn't truly
rise; rather the earth rotates.
The Scriptural Context
It is critical that we always consider the entire context in
which any given passage of Scripture occurs. For example, the
meaning of the parable of the two lost sons at Luke 15.11 (also
known as the parable of the prodigal son) is much clearer if you
examine it in the context of (1) the statement of the Pharisees'
in Luke 15.2 ("This man welcomes sinners and eats with them")
and (2) the other two parables in Luke 15 (the parable of the
lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin) which, with the parable
of the two lost sons, form a trilogy in response to the statement
of Luke 15.2.
The Analogy of Faith
The principle of the Analogy of Faith is that the clearer passages
of Scripture should be used to interpret obscure or more difficult
passages. The fact is that there are some passages of Scripture
that are difficult for even the best scholars to understand.
Consider this passage:
NIV 1 Corinthians 15:29 Now if there is no resurrection, what
will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not
raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
What does this verse mean? The Mormon church (LDS) teaches that
people who have died can be saved and baptized by the living.
This is the reason for their genealogical research. It enables
them to locate deceased family members and provide for their salvation
in the Mormon church. They base that belief on this verse.
But whatever else it means, we have to interpret it in light of
plain and clear Scripture such as this:
Hebrews 9:27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but
after this the judgment:
28 So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and
unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without
sin unto salvation.
We may not be sure what it means to baptize people for the dead,
but Scripture is very clear that a person's only hope to be saved
is during their lifetime. Hebrews 9.27-28 is very clear.
Common mistakes in exegesis
There are some common mistakes which tend to be made in doing
exegesis. One big one is to ignore the literary, historical and
cultural context and applying the text as though it was written
directly to you. Your application of Scripture will be more effective
if you always first determine what it originally meant.
Another common mistake is treat the text as an allegory. An allegory
is a story in which each element of the story is a symbol for
something else. The problem with allegorizing the text is that
you can make it say anything you want when you do that.
Looking for a deeper, "spiritual" meaning is another common mistake.
Scripture tends to be straightforward and relatively simple. Looking
for a deeper, spiritual meaning allows you to make Scripture say
anything you want it to.
Are We Being
Obedient to Scripture
We can have the most faithful text in the world - we could even
have the original documents - but if we're not obedient to the
word of Scripture we don't have a sound doctrine of Scripture.
We can interpret it correctly using the best tools available,
but if we're not obedient to the word of Scripture we don't have
a sound doctrine of Scripture.
Southern Baptists have written a document entitled The Baptist
Faith & Message. It sets out the fundamental things that we
have been able to agree on as being true. A look at our beliefs
about the Bible indicate why we must be obedient to it.
The Holy Bible was written
by men ...
God didn't override human personality. Although the Holy Spirit
superintended every word of Scripture written, in a way we can't
quite explain, the process allowed human personality and human
methods to come through.
For example, Paul was a little angry when he wrote the letter
to the Galatians. There was a group of false teachers who were
trying to undo everything Paul had accomplished there. They were
insisting that in order to be a Christian a man had to be circumcised.
Look at Paul's words about them:
Gal5:11 - Brothers, if I am
still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted?
In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As
for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate
Can you see Paul's personality come through there? Yet, the Holy
Spirit superintended those words so that Holy Scripture was being
Consider Luke's method in writing the book of Gospel of Luke:
(NIV) Luke 1:1 Many have undertaken
to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among
us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the
first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore,
since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the
beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account
for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the
certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke says that he has carefully researched everything he is about
to write. God didn't just dictate it to him. What a marvelous
compliment to our humanity and to our God that he chose to humans
in this way!
(NIV) 2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture
is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting
and training in righteousness,
The Greek word translated "God-breathed" above is theopneustos.
Some versions translate it as "inspired" but it literally means
"God" (theo) "breathed" (pneustos). This means
that even though men wrote the Scriptures, their "inspiration"
was God - he is the ultimate author of Scripture.
and is the record of God's
revelation of Himself to man.
The Bible is not a science book. Where it speaks on matters of
science, it is totally reliable, but it was not written to teach
science. The Bible is not primarily a history book, but where
it speaks on matters of history it is reliable. (It is a history
book in the sense that it shows the revelation of God to men through
history). The Bible is not a parenting manual or a finance manual,
but where it speaks on those issues it is totally reliable. The
purpose of the Bible is to reveal God and his will to people.
It has God for its author,
salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture of error,
for its matter.
We can trust the Bible!
And we also thank God continually
because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from
us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually
is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. 1 Thess
Paul, in this passage, was speaking about the oral word which
the apostles had received from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
This verse today, in speaking to us, also includes the New Testament
books in our Bibles today. (The Old Testament was also considered
Holy Scripture but this particular passage is not referring to
Are we being obedient?
Jesus said, "If you love me,
you will obey what I command." John 14.15 (NIV)
Is this much
ado about nothing?
Over the years some people have claimed that it is a mistake to
approach Scripture from such a systematic and intellectual basis.
They have said that what we really should do is love God and let
the Holy Spirit speak directly to us from the Bible. They claim
we don't need a method of interpretation and that using such methods
only provoke disputes.
I can understand why some people would say that. It's easy to
put study above living out the word. But historically, whenever
God's people have abandoned the scholarly and reasoned study of
Scripture for pietism alone, within a generation they revert to
liberalism, which leads to total subjectivism and ultimately,
today, post-modernism. The only way to protect the message of
Scripture is to approach it with intellectual vigor, illumined
by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit uses our sanctified minds.
In my own life, I see the work of the Holy Spirit more in exposition
than in exegesis, that is, more in application than interpretation.
But I have had a number of interpretive insights I am convinced
came from the Holy Spirit. But those interpretative insights didn't
lead to novel understandings. Rather, they simply helped me use
the tools I had already learned.
Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible
For All It's Worth (2nd ed), Zondervan.(1993).
This is an excellent book which belongs in every believer's library.
It's now out in paperback and is not very expensive.
Ralph Herring, Frank Stagg et al., How to Understand the Bible,
Broadman Press (1974). I don't believe this book is in print any
more but if you find, it's a treasure.
For more advanced study:
Gordon D. Fee, Gospel and Spirit: Issues in New Testament
Hermeneutics, Hendrickson (1991). In this book Fee looks
at the interplay between the mind and spirit in the study of Scripture.
D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Baker (1984). This
little book focuses on mistakes often made in getting Scripture
from Greek into English.
For more advanced study:
David Alan Black & David S. Dockery, eds, New Testament
Criticism & Interpretation, Zondervan (1991). This is
an excellent collection of essays.
Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke & Grant Lovejoy, Biblical Hermeneutics:
A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scripture, Broadman
& Holman (1996). Don't try to tackle this book until you've
mastered the basics.
For textual study
Kurt Aland & Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament,
transl. Erroll F. Rhodes, 2nd ed, William B. Eerdmans
(1989) This is a beginner's classic.