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I am about to begin a discipleship class at Journey called Grasping God’s Word, a series of teaching on a particular method of how to study the Bible. As I have thought about this process of hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), I have been asking myself, “How do I know that this method of interpretation is correct?” According to the laws of logic, an assertion (proposition, idea, belief) is either true or false. Therefore when meditating on this question I have to ask myself, is my method of interpretation true or is it false? It is either/or, and cannot be both.

These thoughts were further burdened to my mind after a conversation between friends recently. One brought up the idea, “How do we know our method of study is correct (or true)? They are man-made rules invented by us.” Implying that these rules were man-made is what struck me to further reflection. If these rules, or laws, of biblical interpretation are truly inventions of the mind of men, then can I trust that they are truth? Why are these rules true, and not others? In the books I have read on how to study the Bible, not one, to my understanding, gives reasoning why the method they put forth is the correct, or truthful, way to study the Bible.

I believe this discussion and line of thinking is incredibly important. Why do I study the Bible the way I do? Why is it that I follow this particular method I do and not another? I believe the Bible is God’s inspired word through which He reveals His nature and character to mankind. As a result, it is equally important that because it was written with so many variables (authors, contexts, genres, etc) we must take adequate measures in order to interpret it and interpret it correctly, or truthfully. If we are to do what scripture teaches, we must first be able to study it and interpret it before applying it.

There are two things I think I need to make clarification on before I proceed with any more thoughts. First, the method of biblical study that I adhere to must be centrally known before reading further. It is as follows:

  1. Carefully read the text in question.
  2. Observe the passage and understand what it meant to the biblical audience.
  3. Observe the differences between the biblical audience and the modern audience.
  4. Determine the theological, or timeless, truth the text reveals.
  5. Determine how the theological, or timeless, truth applies to modern life.

The second thing I want to clarify is the meaning of truth. This is important because it provides the foundation for this entire line of thinking. We must know what truth is before we can answer the question, “Is this method of interpretation true?” I adhere to the Correspondence Theory of Truth which, in essence, states: a proposition is true to the extent that it corresponds to reality. J.P. Moreland in his book The Kingdom Triangle submits that the correspondence relation is demonstrated through “Truth-Bearers” and “Truth-Makers.” A Truth-Bearer, or proposition being asserted, is made true by the Truth-Maker, or relevant facts, which point out the real state of affairs in the world. Therefore, the proposition “grass is green” is true because, in reality, the fact that grass is actually green, makes the proposition true. Even if someone is blind and cannot see that the grass is green, it is the fact that makes the proposition true, not someone’s acceptance or perception of the grass.

So this raises the question, “Do the rules I implore correspond with the way things actually are in the real world?” I find this out by looking at Truth-Makers, or relevant facts to the proposition. By following this theory of truth, I believe I can adequately answer why I study the Bible the way I do, and actually know this method to be true, right, and correct.

One truth-maker, or relevant fact, is to note that some things are basic to certain enterprises. Greg Koukl employs this principle when speaking about the Laws of Logic, saying mankind did not invent these laws, but rather discovered them. To illustrate further, he speaks of communication. To communicate with another individual requires the use of subjects and verbs. If, at least, these two elements of communication are not employed, communication will cease to exist. Whether spoken language is used or not, subjects and verbs must be employed to communicate ones ideas. This was not an invention of mankind, but was rather a discovery of mankind as we developed communication; it is inherent to the very nature of communication. This illustrates his point that the Laws of Logical are objective, and therefore are not creations but rather discoveries. The law of non-contradiction is objectively true whether someone accepted its validity or not. It says, in essence, something cannot be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. We all subconsciously accept this law as truth.

I believe this same reasoning is basic to the enterprise of biblical interpretation. I do not believe the method I have put forth is a man-made invention, but rather a discovery of man. Some may say this is mere semantics; however, it is immensely important to differentiate between these two expressions. If something is an invention of man, then it can be changed. However, if this method of study is a timeless, objective truth, then it cannot be changed. It would, in fact, remain the truthful method of biblical study even if no one in the world adhered to it. If this method is an invention, then we can change it. When studying scripture we can simply not be concerned with what the text meant to the biblical audience. Or, we can not be concerned with the context, genre or literary device being employed by the biblical writer. I, however, believe that we must use this method to come to correct interpretation for the very reason that they can not be changed or ignored. These steps are objective measures of biblical interpretation that are true whether someone accepts them or not.

R.C. Sproul states we should “study the Bible as we would any other ancient document.” Gordon  Fee & Douglas Stuart’s introduction to their book Read the Bible for All It’s Worth states: “the most important ingredient one brings to [biblical interpretation] is enlightened common sense.” Common sense, again, is not something that was, or is, created, rather it is discovered. A proper study of ancient documents is a process that has been discovered rather than created. Again, if this process of study was invented, then we can change the process any time we want. For example, when studying the Code of Hammurabi, scholars can simply throw out the rule of understanding the text through the eyes of the ancient audience or the differences in culture at the time the Code was written, which no scholar would ever consider doing. Understanding these aspects of ancient documents helps us to interpret the meaning of these texts more accurately. Therefore, as illustrated with both communication and interpretation of all ancient documents, we see there are principles that are basic and inherent to certain enterprises, in this case, biblical interpretation.

Another truth-maker for this method of interpretation is what Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart call “a prick or prod to the heart.” In their introduction to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Fee and Stuart provide some reasoning for their method of interpretation as they engage particular genres throughout scripture:

The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the ‘plain meaning of the text.’ And the most important ingredient one brings to that task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.

I do not encourage Christians to be sensual in their interpretation of a biblical passage. By sensual, I mean a Christian who bases their interpretation of scripture on how it makes them feel. For this individual, it is feeling or experience alone that guides them to understanding scripture. I certainly do not adhere to this line of reasoning, for one, because as your feelings or experiences change so would your interpretation of scripture. This logic would eventually lead to a relativistic interpretative method in which everyone decides for themselves what a passage means based on how it makes them feel at the moment the passage becomes aware to them. What then would the role of study be? If we are to base our interpretation on how it makes us feel, there would be no need for study! Study would involve the mind (thought & reasoning) and therefore would taint the meaning of scripture. This was not how Jesus and the Apostles used scripture, and neither should we use it in this method. We are, in fact, required and commanded to study scripture. We are commanded to love our God with all our heart, soul and mind. We must utilize this portion of the self if we are to adequately interpret scripture.

The above being stated, I absolutely do not denounce what Fee and Stuart call the “prick or prod to the heart.” In fact, I believe this prick or prod is absolutely necessary to hermeneutics. It is what sets the Bible apart from any other ancient document! It is what separates biblical scholars from any other scholar of ancient documents. For though we have discovered how to study ancient documents, the scriptures are set apart as a living document. Not in the sense that the meaning changes over time, but rather that it has the unique ability to change lives. The Bible is alive!

As a believer, I trust the Holy Spirit to carry me along in my interpretation of scripture as He also carried along the writers of scripture. I have confidence that while my mind is at work employing this method of interpretation, my emotions are also at work. I am implying that the Holy Spirit employs the entire self in the interpretative process to bring about a complete understanding of the nature and character of God and His plan for the world revealed in scripture. I study the Bible the way I do because it produces an understanding of God as He actually is in reality as well as the life He desires His creation to live.

The reason I place this truth-maker second, is that the question “Why do I study the Bible the way I do?” cannot rely on this fact alone. If it did, then we would be guilty of being sensual interpreters of scripture, basing our method on emotion alone and not employing the entire self, namely the mind.

I want to answer those critics who would say, “Well Michael, you are just circular-reasoning. If you believe your method of study is true because it produces a correct understanding of God and life, your correct understanding of God and life is based on your method that you are trying to reason is true. Therefore, you’re arguing in a circle.” However, I think this argument falls apart in light of the role the Holy Spirit and how we know our very faith is true. Dr William Lane Craig, a noted philosopher and apologist, states that given all the reasons he puts forth for the existence of God, the number one reason he knows and has assurance of his faith is the inner-witness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s role in the assurance of our faith and the conviction of character assures us of the life our interpretation of scripture produces.

Let me illustrate it like this: think of the antique cars at Six Flags. It’s this little car that people of any age can drive. There is a predetermined path that twists and turns, however there is a metal strip that runs down the center of that path. The car is fit with an attachment that allows the driver to steer, but not get off the path. This method of interpretation is like the path, while the Holy Spirit’s assurance and conviction are the metal strip that keeps our interpretation aligned with God’s will.

In conclusion, we know that a life produced by a particular method of interpretation is true to the extent that it corresponds to reality. Jesus said, “Thy word is truth.” God’s word corresponds with the way things are in reality – perfectly. Therefore, His word is truth. If the life that is produced with a particular method of interpretation does not match up to the way things truly are in the world (i.e. morality, purpose, perspective, etc) then that method is false. I believe that the method of biblical interpretation I have shared is true because it helps us discover the nature of God and the life required of us, as they actually are in the world. I believe it because:

1)    It was not invented, but discovered, thereby demonstrating this method as objective. It is basic to the enterprise of interpretation much like the use of subjects and verbs are basic to the enterprise of communication and therefore cannot be changed but must remain the same.

2)    The inner assurance and conviction of the Holy Spirit that is produced in the life of an individual that adheres to this method of interpretation. His role keeps us aligned with the way God wants things to be.

This is why I study the Bible the way I do. This is not a research paper nor is it an exhaustive study of the question. It is merely my thoughts that I have been mulling over the past few weeks. I am certainly open to critique and further learning. But I do think I have provided some sound reasons as to why I believe this method is true. May we all “study to show ourselves approved, workman who do not need to be ashamed but who correctly handle the word of truth” – which teaches things as they actually are.

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