How to Interpret the Bible, Part 1

© The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th. D., 2017

We live in one of the worst times of church history: it seems that every few years there is a new movement and a new interpretation of the Bible. And there is a new study Bible published every few years to promote this new “private interpretation.”

Several years ago, I had lunch with a young man who was on a quest. He was studying the Bible by himself and teaching others his views. Toward the end of a long conversation, I asked him what church he attended, and he said “None.” I strongly advised him to find a good gospel church to attend, and he indicated he would not. He has no Bible training, no training of Hebrew and Greek, no training in theology, no training in church history, especially regarding the heretics down through the centuries; in other words, he would be a law unto himself. Mark it down that those who think they can go it alone are sure to repeat the errors and heresies of the past. Here we have one who may start another Christian cult. This young man is teaching that there is no hell and that all will be saved, everyone who has ever lived. Now this young man has quit his job, and is studying the Bible at home. He has a wife and children. His idea of sola scriptura is just the Bible and me.

The history of the church must be taken into consideration when we study the Bible and theology. It is tragic that some who think so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them, think so little of what He has revealed to others. The interpretation of the Bible belongs to the Church and has been ongoing for 3,500 years, going back to Moses. We must not divorce ourselves from the church’s history.

Sola Scriptura was a watchword for the protestant Reformers, but they did not mean “just the Bible and me.” In other words, the Bible was the ultimate authority but not the only authority. Even the great protestant Presbyterian Charles Hodge stated: “If the Bible be the only infallible rule of faith and practice; and if . . . the Spirit guides the people of God . . . into the knowledge of the truth, then the presumption is invincible that what all true Christians believe to be the sense of Scripture is its sense” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 2:437).

Or, as R. C. Sproul has said: “Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If, upon reading a particular passage, you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.” (Dr. R.C. Sproul, The Agony of Deceit, pp. 34, 35)

In other words, Hodge and Sproul are saying that there must be some closure to Christian truth, not begin again with each new generation. So what doctrines should be final? We see those doctrines in the three creeds of the Church, especially the Nicene Creed. Indeed, all branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism) hold to the Nicene Creed formally, and most confess it in their worship services. The Apostles’ Creed is also broadly used, and the third creed, The Athanasian Creed is confessed in the West by Rome, Anglicanism and others.

If one reads the doctrinal statements of independent churches who naively say “no creed but Christ”, one can see that they really hold to the Apostles’ Creed. In fact, it is quite impossible not to have a creed, for that is just what one believes. Better to be in line with all Christians than to reinvent the wheel. Can you imagine a young man wanting to enter medicine, and he says he does not believe any of the research of others before but that only he has the truth? Would you want him to do heart surgery on you? That is precisely what is happening with new movements, such as the word-faith movement, and with this young man who quit his job. He is ignoring all who have gone before, cast aside their wisdom and biblical understanding, and is now wanting to do spiritual heart surgery on others. He first needs to learn from others more qualified than himself and be approved by them. In other words, he needs to submit to their authority, learn from their approved studies, and only then have the seal of approval on them.

Here is an example. When I was starting a church in TX, a young man and his new family were attending worship. We had a liturgical worship, which he very much appreciated. After attending several times, I asked him and his wife to dinner after church. Toward the end of lunch he asked me this question: “May we join the church if we are preterist?” Now preterism has several forms. It can mean that all the passages in the New Testament on the Second Coming were fulfilled in AD 70. Another view is that most of the passages in the New Testament were fulfilled in AD 70, but some await His return. I asked him which view he held. He said he held the first view, that basically the Second Coming was over since AD 70. I said, “You may not join because the Church has spoken over the millennia that the Second Coming is yet in the future. I don’t care if you’re amil, premil, postmil, but you can’t deny the Second Coming.” His response was, “I can show you good reasons for my position.” I responded, “No you can’t, but if you are really interested in how the Church has understood those passages, I’ll be glad to meet with you. For now I request that you get some good modern, conservative commentaries and restudy the issue.” He did restudy, and became a member, and the whole process was about three months. He and his family never gave us any trouble and made excellent members.

Basically, I brought the authority of Christ through His Church to bear on him, and he responded in a godly way. We are not to be a law unto ourselves or to be autonomous individuals, thinking sola scripture means just the Bible and me. So how do we interpret the Bible? From a covenantal position of being under authority.

There are other things that must be considered also, such as knowing the Old Testament language of Hebrew, the New Testament language of Greek, the cultural background, knowing the whole Bible, and many other things. But this is enough for this short blog.

Next time, Lord willing, I shall rescue 2 Peter 1:16-21 from false interpretations, but for now here is my translation:

 

knowing this first,

that no prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own private interpretation,

                             for prophecy never came by the will of man,

BUT

                       holy men of God spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

 

We shall look at this next time, Lord wiling.

AMEN.Ω