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Principles of Bible Interpretation - by Rev. Charles F. Sutton, Jr.

Principles of Bible Interpretation.

In these days of controversy over sexual morality and over such huge questions such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, both proponents of historic orthodoxy and of new theologies appeal to Scripture to uphold their claims. However, those who seek to make Jesus one among many paths to God or to say that homsexual activity is morally acceptable in the Lord’s eyes use principles of interpretation that are alien to the nature and structure of the Bible.

The Bible needs to be interpreted according to “the big picture.” The parts only make their fullest sense in the light of the whole. The Bible also needs to be interpreted according to its own terms. One of the ba-sic questions about the Bible is “What is the Bible’s ultimate source?” Is it purely from the mind of hu-man beings, or is God the ultimate author? If we as Christians look to Jesus Christ, we need to see his atti-tude to the Scriptures. When we review what Jesus says about the Bible, it is clear that he accepted the Bible as having God as its ultimate author. Time and again, Jesus says, “It is written,” as he quotes Scrip-ture, and what is written settles the matter. He opposes the Pharisees, who have learned how to use sub-terfuges to twist the meaning of the Scriptures – saying, for instance, that vowing to use their money for God at some point in the future means that they are relieved the responsibility of caring for their aged parents. (See Mark 7:11)

The following are basic principles of reading the Bible in the light of the Bible:
1. The New Testament interprets the Old. (The Old Testament was preparatory; the New makes plain the meaning of what was being prepared. Someone once said, “The New is in the Old con-cealed; the Old is in the New revealed.”)

2. The Epistles interpret the Gospels. (The epistles were written to explain the meaning of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection. The Gospels were written to tell the story of Jesus’ life. Both are crucial for those who follow Jesus, but the epistles are explanations of the story and so help us to un-derstand it.)

3. The universal interprets the local. (The local may show us how a particular principle is worked out in a particular setting, but it does not tell us the only way the principle may be applied – though of course, no principle could be applied in mutually contradictory ways.)

4. The systematic interprets the incidental. (Thus, Gen. 2:24, 25 tell us that the actions of Lot’s daughters in Gen. 19:30-38 was wrong. Stories can give us examples to follow – or to avoid. What Lot’s daughters did indicates the sexual depravity of Sodom.)

5. The didactic interprets the symbolic. (Thus, Revelation is to be read in the light of Jesus’ teachings on his return and of Paul’s teachings on the return of the Lord.)

The “literal” interpretation of Scripture does not treat all verses the same. It takes into account the type of literature involved (poetry is different from systematic teaching; the Psalms and Proverbs are not inter-preted the same way as Romans). Literal interpretation also takes into account the setting of the writer, and, if necessary, the setting of the intended hearers. Matthew is intended for Christians from a Jewish background; Luke for those from a Gentile background, and this differing audience accounts for some of the differences between the two (although the differences are those of emphasis and style, not of sub-stance).

The Old Testament needs to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament because the Old was pre-paring for the coming of the Messiah. Once the Messiah has arrived, what was provisional and prepara-tory in the Old Testament takes second place to what was is in the New. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is to be dropped, because in Christ, all may come to the Father on the same grounds, the work of Christ on the cross, rather than membership in the physical descendants of Israel and the keeping of the commandments. The laws given in the Pentateuch are of three types: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The civil law no longer applies to the people of God, for they are no longer a nation-state, but rather a multi-ethnic people from many nations. (Although consideration of the principles involved in those laws may tell us much about what it is wise for a government to do.) The ceremonial laws do not apply, because their purpose was to point is to Christ, either by revealing the sinfulness of sin (“clean” and “unclean”) or the need for an atoning sacrifice to deal with sin. Now that the Lamb of God has come to deal with sin, the ceremonial laws are instructive to our understanding of sin, sacrifice, and grace, but they are not obligatory upon those who follow the Lord Jesus. He has made the sacrifice that restores and heals us. The moral laws, however, being grounded in the character of God and in the nature of his creation, still apply to all human beings.

In Romans 12:1,2, Paul tells us “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (NIV) When we read Scripture, we are to use our minds to their fullest capacity, but we are to submit those minds to God for instruction. When we read the Bible, we are to interpret it according to the perspective of the Lord Jesus, who loved the Scriptures and used them for his instruction, guidance, and refreshment.

FOOTNOTE: These principles are from what I learned as member and later a Campus Intern of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and from my days at Gordon-Conwell Theoloigal Seminary. I cannot pin-point their source any more clearly than this.

The Rev. Charles F. Sutton, Jr., Rector
Trinity Episcopal Church (ECUSA - Diocese of W. Mass)
Whitinsville, MA

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