HOW TO RIGHTLY INTERPRET THE BIBLE

Many people think it's impossible to really understand what the Bible says. Even a growing number of Christians point to all the differences of biblical interpretation among evangelicals and simply throw up their hands with a "we obviously can't really know for sure which one's right, so let's just all get along." While I'm in favor of unity within the body of Christ among believers who disagree on secondary doctrines, I am not persuaded to conclude that no one can really be certain that they have the right interpretation of a particular passage. The church has been way too influenced by post-modern relativism on this point. Yes, we want to be humble and not overly dogmatic about secondary issues but I simply can't accept that God would leave us with a book that we can't really be sure that we understand. God is a God of clarity and order not of confusion and the Spirit has been given to lead us into all truth. I believe there are ways to have great confidence in our interpretation of the Bible and I think these excerpts from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their book Total Church provide some helpful avenues towards that confidence:

WORD-CENTERED THEOLOGY

"Theology has been called “the study of God.” But theology is so unlike any other discipline that it ought not to be considered in the same category. In biology, for example, the biologist studies the plant and deduces information through analysis and research. The plant itself is the passive object of dispassionate scientific scrutiny. God, however, is never a passive object! All theology or discourse about God proceeds on the basis that God has revealed himself. The initiative is his alone. Our knowledge of God is dependent upon his own self-disclosure. So theology is not philosophy: it is neither speculative in nature nor esoteric in content.  All theology must be the fruit of serious engagement with the Bible. Theology, properly understood, is an encounter with the living God in his word. Furthermore, God’s self-disclosure in Christ the Word and in the word of the Bible is that which scrutinizes us. As we examine the light, the light exposes our flaws and reveals an alternative, authentic reality.

In his final letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him of the Scriptures he was taught as a child. Timothy faces false teachers whom Paul describes as “evil men and impostors” who “go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived ” (3: 13). In contrast, Timothy is to continue in what he has learned (3: 14; see also 1: 13). His point of reference is the Holy Scriptures, for these alone give the wisdom that leads to salvation in Christ (3: 15). All other teaching consists of “foolish and stupid arguments” (2: 23). So Timothy is to apply himself diligently to the study of the Scriptures as “a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2: 15). Timothy’s task is essentially simple, if not always easy : as a leader of God’s people, teaching them truth and protecting them from error, Timothy is to work hard at studying the Bible.
As Calvin puts it, “The Lord, when he gave us the Scriptures, did not intend either to gratify our curiosity . . . or to give occasion for chatting and talking, but to do us good. Therefore the right use of Scripture must always tend to what is profitable.” The man of God is equipped by the word of God for every good work because Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (3: 16).

MISSION-DRIVEN THEOLOGY

Because theology is always the fruit of engagement with the Bible, it is not the preserve of the academic, nor is its pursuit confined to academic institutions. Theology is the task of the local church.

Theology is also the task of the church because the only theology that matters and is worthy of the name is practical theology. Theology is the stuff of life. Theology is a service of worship that extends over the whole of life. The wife who submits to her husband as to Christ and the husband who loves his wife as Christ loved the church are theologians. They are people who know the word of God and allow that word to transform them in lives of humble , self-forgetting service. Meaningful theology needs to take place primarily in the routine life of the people of God. It needs to be discourse that engages with life and arises out of life. 
Theology must be in the service of the church and its mission. Authentic theology must be shaped by what we might call a missionary hermeneutic . Theology divorced from this context is essentially barren, self-referential, and indulgent.
I find time and again that talking to non-Christians forces me to take my theology to another level. “I pray,” says Paul to Philemon, “that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (v. 6). Unbelievers are not satisfied with the pat answers and unexplained terminology that Christians all too often readily accept.
The missionary task of crossing cultures presents particular opportunities for the renewal of theology. Communicating the gospel cross-culturally and across subcultures causes us to reflect on how much of our Christian practice arises from the gospel and how much from our own culture. Mission is the opportunity to rethink which elements of what we believe do belong to the gospel and which in fact belong to our culture.
Restoring biblical theology to its true home in the believing, missionary community is at once a far more accessible and a far more demanding enterprise. It demands of us that our Bible teaching should always look to explore the missionary implications of a passage— to make the truth plain and to make it real.

It also means that when issues arise in our churches and ministry, time should be taken to reflect on them theologically. They often present real opportunities to move forward in theological understanding. And without this theological reflection we will be driven by pragmatism or tradition. As theologians together, our “subject” should be exploring the missiological implications of all theology in every aspect of the life of the local church and in every detail of the lives of believers. Theology must address the issues that arise from our involvement in mission.

COMMUNITY-BASED THEOLOGY

There are a number of dimensions to this understanding. First, most of the New Testament was written to gospel communities. This suggests that the best context in which to understand them is a gospel community. The Old Testament, too, was for the most part the product of a community identity , a community called to be a light to the nations. Bible interpretation is not just about me and my Bible. It is about God’s word to his people, a people with a responsibility toward the world.

Second, one of the issues the Reformation raised was how to decide between competing interpretations of the Bible. The Catholic answer was that the hierarchy of the church decided: the Pope was the ultimate authority. The Protestant answer was that every believer decides: every man is his own pope. In practice, this developed at times into the popery of scholarship with the academy determining the true interpretation of the Bible. It ran to seed in theological liberalism with human scholarship sitting in judgment on the word of God. From the beginning the Anabaptist response was to say that the community of believers determines together the interpretation of Scripture. They held that Scripture was plain and that the gathered believers could understand the Scriptures. The Anabaptists spoke of “the Rule of Paul,” a reference to 1 Corinthians 14: 29: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” 

Third, the hermeneutics of community is closely related to another important idea— the hermeneutics of obedience. There is , the Anabaptists argued, a close connection between understanding the Bible and obeying the Bible, between knowledge and discipleship. Anabaptists like Hans Denck and Hans Hut used to say that true knowledge of God cannot be achieved simply from reading the Bible. Hans Denck said, “No man can know Christ unless he follows after him in life .” The readiness to obey Christ’s words is prerequisite to understanding them. And if discipleship was necessary for understanding, then a discipling community was necessary for understanding. The Christian community is the context in which commitment to obedience is nurtured and maintained, and so it is the context in which theology must be done.

In Ephesians 4: 11– 16 Paul affirms the role of teachers but suggests their role is “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (vv. 12– 13). Notice that we reach “knowledge of the Son of God” together. Our understanding progresses as we grow together. My growth as a Christian is in some sense linked to your growth. Only together do we attain maturity.

The main thing that prevents us from understanding the Bible aright is not a lack of hermeneutical skills but our sin. Our sin warps our understanding because we all tend toward self -justification. Studying the text with other people reduces the impact of sin on our thinking. The teachers ’ meeting is only the beginning of the process. We include group interaction so that the community as a whole wrestles with the meaning and implications of the text. We encourage people to continue the conversation into the week and to walk with one another as we apply it to our lives. And this is only half the picture. It represents the movement of Bible to life or word to world. We also want to move from world to word, encouraging people to reflect biblically in the context of the community on issues raised by life and ministry. In our team meetings, for example, we invite people to raise questions for the group to think through together.


...As Calvin says, doctrine is an affair “not of the tongue, but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart. . . . It must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us.”

Chester, Tim; Timmis, Steve (2013-06-30). Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Re:Lit). Crossway. Kindle Edition.



Nathan Cedarland is a servant-leader of Kaleo Community, a gospel-centered church in Aberdeen, WA. He is passionate about God, his family (his wife Julissa and their five kids), his church family, equipping the Spanish-speaking church throughout the Americas, and film-making.

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