FBC Bosque Farms - How to Understand the Bible

How to Understand the Bible


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 of Scripture

There are three indispensable ingredients to a proper doctrine of Scripture:

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 authors?

2. Are we interpreting it properly? Does our method of interpretation use accepted, scholarly methods designed to produce a faithful interpretation?

3. Are we obedient to it? Do we allow the Scripture to inform and transform our life?

Do We Have a Reliable Text?

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 a codex.

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.

The Text 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 more accurate.

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.

The Interpretation of Scripture

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 following things:

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 honor."

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 themselves! (NIV)

Can you see Paul's personality come through there? Yet, the Holy Spirit superintended those words so that Holy Scripture was being written.

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!

divinely inspired ...

(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 2.13 (NIV)

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 that).

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.

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