On a Saturday morning several years ago, when I was participating in our church ministry of door-to-door visitation, I came to a house where a man was sitting on the porch. I walked up to him and started a conversation. Soon joining us was his teenage daughter, who had learned some shallow objections to Christianity. When I spoke of truth, she said, as if it were a profound question, "What is truth?" I said, "I mean objective truth, such as the statement, 'The chair sits on the porch.'" She had no comeback, so she stopped trying to poke holes in what I was saying and listened attentively. For her sake I kept talking, although the father, a native American who conducted ceremonies in the traditional religion of his people, was quite hostile. He blamed all Christians for a massacre of native Americans on the West Coast centuries ago at the instigation of a Jesuit priest. His main argument against Christianity, though, was that it has spawned so many denominations, all with a different slant on the Bible. The Bible cannot be true, he said, if Christians themselves cannot agree on what it teaches.
It is true that disputes over Bible interpretation have fractured the church from the beginning. Yet the Bible itself explains why these disputes are necessary.
For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.
1 Cor. 11:19
"Heresies" means "factions." What Paul means is that God uses doctrinal questions and other contentious issues to separate the faithful from the disobedient. The disobedient are swept away from a true New Testament Christianity by winds of false doctrine, while the faithful remain. When later generations of believers look back on their heritage, they recognize the faithful in past generations as those approved by God.
During the Middle Ages, the Roman church reserved for itself the right to interpret the Bible. The masses under its umbrella had to believe whatever the church told them, or else suffer excommunication. The Protestant Reformers transferred ultimate authority from the church to the Bible, affirming the principle known as sola scriptura, and they insisted that interpreting the Bible was the task of each believer, to be accomplished through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. They did not deny that the church has a responsibility to identify and teach correct interpretations. Rather, they said that each believer is accountable to God for the interpretations he accepts. God will be displeased if he remains in any church or supports any ministry or embraces any teaching that contradicts the truth.
Since the Reformation, the church has been racked by doctrinal disputes arising from variant interpretations of the Bible. In every generation, believers have been obliged to sort through a welter of new interpretations and decide which are good and which are heretical. In our generation, the challenge to sound doctrine comes from those who are unhappy with Bible teachings that they consider out-of-date. To resolve this tension, they want to rewrite and reinterpret the Bible so that it conforms better to contemporary ways of thought. They argue, for example, that the Bible does not really teach recent creation, or that it does not really forbid women preachers, or that it does not really condemn so-called gay marriage.
That branch of Bible study which seeks to lay out the proper rules for interpreting Scripture is known as hermeneutics. Among devout Bible students, there has long been consensus as to what these rules are. The church must now reaffirm and defend them if it wishes to counter the current threats to sound doctrine. The authentic rules of interpretation include the following five.
1. The Rule of Authorial Intent
No reader has the right to impose his own ideas on the text. Scripture itself clearly teaches that the only meaning of a text is what the Holy Spirit intended when He inspired the human writer (2 Pet. 1:20-21). It follows that every text has only one correct interpretation. If two readers disagree on what it means, at least one of them is necessarily wrong. Perhaps both are wrong. How do we discover the one correct interpretation? We must consult the author Himself, the Holy Spirit. We must allow Him to teach us.
Two are prominent today.
- We live in a time when the thinking of many people is colored by the idea that all truth is relative—that what is true for me may not be true for you. Thus, when someone prefers a doubtful interpretation of Scripture, he may justify himself by saying, "Everyone is entitled to his own interpretation," as if any interpretation is as good as another. The rule of authorial intent shows this thinking to be in error. The only correct interpretation is the one faithful to the author's intent.
- Many mainline churches today are tainted with neo-orthodoxy, a form of theology derived from the philosophy of existentialism. It assumes that truth consists in experience rather than in facts. Many people in these churches use Bible words and concepts just to gain a satisfying sense of some reality beyond themselves—to achieve a religious high, as it were. They sing about the Trinity even though they do not believe in it. They read the Bible even though they view it as basically a collection of myths. To make Biblical language true and worthwhile from a standpoint of unbelief, they impose upon it subjective meanings that reinforce their own religious ideas and yield religious sensations. The goal is to feel good. Because they set subjective meanings in place of intended meanings, they are violating the rule of authorial intent.
2. The Rule of Univocal Meaning
The basic sense of a passage is the single sense evident to any reader who allows the words their ordinary meanings and who expects the grammar and syntax to shape and combine these meanings in a normal fashion. This rule should not be applied indiscriminately, without recognition that Biblical writers may sometimes propound a riddle or engage in word play. In either instance the words may bear more than one basic meaning.
A great many could be cited, but we will content ourselves to discuss three that are especially dangerous.
- Many cults—from Mormonism to Christian Science, from Jehovah's Witnesses to Seventh-Day Adventists—purport to be based on the Bible. How can such divergent belief systems find a footing in the same book? The answer is that every cult foists interpretations on the Bible that distort what the Bible actually says. Instead of respecting the true single sense of a decisive passage, a cult changes the sense to suit its own peculiar views.
- Among contemporary evangelicals, an increasing number have no objection to women preachers or to homosexuality in the form of gay marriage. They concede that the Bible appears to forbid both, but they argue that God was merely seeking a good fit between His Word and ancient culture. Less restriction on a woman's role would have been too radical for a church grounded in patriarchal Judaism, and condemnations of homosexuality were useful for combating the homosexual promiscuity that flourished in the Greco-Roman world, especially in pagan temples. But, in the view of these evangelicals, God sees modern society as ready for both women preachers and homosexual monogamy, and the Biblical prohibitions against them are outmoded. They counsel a reader today to see such prohibitions only as examples of God graciously adapting His message to man's level of understanding. We raise three objections:
- In every age, a reader of the Biblical texts bearing on homosexuality and women preachers would find nothing but unqualified disapproval, with no hint of limited application to days gone by. Denial of their application to our day is therefore a rejection of the plain sense and a violation of the rule of univocal meaning.
- The apologists for women preachers and monogamous homosexuality claim that God no longer supports the prohibitions we find in Scripture. But apart from Scripture, how does anyone know what God thinks? I am always amazed when someone presents a personal opinion as God's way of thinking. When has God ever spoken to him? Without support from divine revelation, how could he possibly be sure that his reading of God's mind is correct? Is it not much more likely that what he attributes to God is simply an upward projection of his own way of thinking?
- To suppose that the Bible does not give us God's latest views treats Him as if He were a politician who takes one position at one time and another position at another time, according to what serves His advantage. Moreover, if His Word says that He opposes something, we cannot conclude that He now favors it without viewing His former opposition as a lie, for an all-knowing God has no room to change His mind. Truthfulness requires Him to express Himself in words as true tomorrow as they are today.
- It is another violation of the first rule to seek any significance in the numerical values of letters (numerology), in the physical layout of the original text, in combinations of separated words or letters, in punctuation, or in any other coincidence. In a best-selling book some years ago—Michael Drosnin's The Bible Code—the author assembles all the letters occurring at certain intervals and interprets them as prophecies, finding even a prophecy of Kennedy's assassination.54 But all this is sleight-of-hand to impress the naive. The same technique can be used to fabricate any message whatever. Many books of like nature appear on such Web sites as The Prophecy Club.
3. The Rule of Context
The context of a passage may supply clues to the correct interpretation. Such clues may even clarify a passage that otherwise would be obscure. An example is the Parable of the Mustard Seed:
31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
Only by comparing it with the other parables in the same chapter (especially the first two, the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares) do we discover that it describes the future of the church. Its prediction that the church in its final stages would be corrupt comes to light only if we notice that the growth of the mustard plant parallels the spread of leaven in the next parable, the Parable of the Leaven.
Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
In Scripture, leaven always represents sin. Another insight critical to this interpretation is to notice that the birds in the first parable of the series, the Parable of the Sower, represent workers of Satan:
3 And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
19 When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
Matt. 13:3, 4, 19
Many heretical doctrines violate this rule. The Catholic teaching that Peter was the first pope appeals to Matthew 16:18. But in context, the rock is not Peter, but Jesus, the one Peter has just identified as "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16).
4. The Rule That Scripture Explains Itself
Meaning of Leaven
How do we know that leaven represents sin? We draw this conclusion from a comprehensive look at all the references to leaven in Scripture. In obedience to this fourth rule, we rely on Scripture to explain itself. That is to say, in the places where leaven is a symbol with obvious meaning, we expect that the meaning will be the same, and that this meaning will help us interpret the other texts referring to leaven.
Through such an investigation, we find that Scripture consistently associates leaven with evil. Before celebrating Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the people of Israel were required to go through their houses and remove every trace of leaven (Exod. 12:15). This ritual depicted their need to remove sin from their lives before they sought fellowship with God. Paul explicitly identifies leaven as a symbol of malice and wickedness (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:7-9).
In general, the New Testament explains the Old. Without the New, we could not be confident that the Old contains types and allegories, and we would scarcely know how to interpret them.
A type is a person or event that pictures a person or event in the future. The New Testament informs us that Melchizedek is a type of Christ (Heb. 6:20-7:3). Another type is the Joshua who served as high priest after the Jews returned from exile. That he is a symbol of the Branch—that is, Christ—is made plain even in the Old Testament.
Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, thou, and thy fellows that sit before thee: for they are men wondered at: for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the BRANCH.
"Wondered at" can be translated "of symbol." In other words, Joshua and his fellows represent something else. The meaning of his fellows emerges later from the same prophetic utterance. But the one man Joshua is specifically a symbol of the Branch. From other prophecies we learn that the Branch is also one man, the Messiah (Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; Zech. 6:12). This much is evident from study of the Old Testament, but only from the perspective of the New Testament do we understand the significance of Joshua's name. Joshua is simply a transliteration of the same Hebrew name that the New Testament spells Jesus. In other words, the Joshua in Zechariah's day foretold not only the high priestly office of Christ when He offered Himself as a sacrifice for sins, but also His very name.
Other Old Testament figures who seem to be deliberate types of Christ are Joseph, Joshua (Moses' successor), and Hosea. Such figures as Pharaoh, Haman, and Antiochus Epiphanes (foreshadowed in Dan. 11:21-35) appear to be forerunners of the Antichrist, a figure named in the New Testament. The New Testament teaches that the rites of Mosaic religion furnish types of Christ's redemptive work (Heb. 9:8-9).
A story in which each element represents something beyond itself is a common species of allegory. Israel's escape from Egypt is an allegory of Christian experience (1 Cor. 10:1-6), and the struggle within Abraham's family between Hagar and Sarah is an allegory of the conflict between law and grace (Gal. 4:21-31).
The question that has always vexed expositors is this: just how much liberty do we have to discover allegories? Some church fathers and many commentators during the Middle Ages carried allegorizing to extremes, even so far as to neglect the plain meaning of Scripture. To a modern student of the Bible, many of the allegories that they drew from Scripture seem far-fetched and arbitrary. In reaction against this, most Bible-believing expositors since Reformation times decline to look for any allegories besides those Scripture itself identifies.
There is one major exception. The Song of Solomon has traditionally been read as an allegory of Christ's love for the church. This interpretation is doubtful, however, since the church is a mystery largely hidden from the Old Testament. The Song may well be an allegory, but dealing with another theme altogether: specifically, with Jehovah's relationship to Israel.
5. The Rule of Literalism
The Bible is to be taken literally unless it is using symbols or a figure of speech.
Figures of speech
A figure of speech is an expression implying an idea other than what is actually stated. Five kinds of figurative language are prevalent in Scripture.
- Metaphor. The most common kind of figure in Scripture is the metaphor, backbone of Hebrew poetry. No less than five metaphors occur in a single verse (Psa., 18:2). A metaphor speaks of an equivalence when there is no more than a resemblance. God is not a high tower; He merely in some ways resembles one.
- Metonymy. Metonymy is the substitution of a related concept for the intended concept. We find examples in 1 Thessalonians 5:19 ("the Spirit" is substituted for His activity or manifestations), Isaiah 22:22 ("key" replaces the broader idea of authority), and Luke 16:29 (Moses and the prophets stand in place of their writings). In all these cases, the literal meaning is false or impossible.
- Synecdoche. Synecdoche is another kind of substitution—in this case, a part for the whole or a whole for the part, as when Jesus says, "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20). For other examples, see Judges 12:7; and Acts 27:37.
- Ellipsis. An ellipsis is an abbreviated expression that requires the reader to supply the missing words. Taken literally, an ellipsis might be nonsensical. In the Greek of 1 Corinthians 3:2, for instance, the writer says, "I gave you milk to drink and not meat." He does not mean that he refrained from giving them meat to drink. Of similar nature are the expressions we find in Luke 1:64 and Psalm 74:7 (in the latter case, the translators supplied the omitted words).
- Hyperbole. Hyperbole is rhetorical overstatement, a fairly common device in the Bible (Gen. 22:17; Deut. 1:28; 2 Chron. 28:4; Song 4:4).
Recognizing figures of speech
How can we tell when Scripture is using a figure of speech? Generally, an expression should be taken figuratively if it falls in one of three categories.
- The literal meaning is impossible. A simple example appears in Psalm 5:9. A throat cannot be a sepulchre.
- The literal meaning is possible, but probably never true. We find a figure of this type in Psalm 25:15. It is not impossible that my feet would, under peculiar circumstances, become entangled in a net and that the Lord would deliver me from it. But the psalmist is not talking about a real net. He is referring to any trap set by an enemy.
- The literal meaning is trivial. A good example is the metaphor in Isaiah 55:1-2. There is no logical difficulty in supposing that the prophet is calling people to buy food and drink, but to view the passage in this way trivializes it and misses the point. The prophet has a spiritual message here. He wants us to forsake worldly things for the eternal things that yield true satisfaction.
Symbolism presents somewhat thornier problems. Probably the clearest example of symbolism in Scripture is the mysterious drama in Revelation 12:1-6. Another clear example is the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23). From examination of these and other cases, we arrive at some principles governing Biblical symbolism.
- When the Bible uses symbolism, it alerts the reader to the nature of what he is reading. Jesus Himself gives a full explanation of the Parable of the Sower. From His treatment of this parable, we infer that we can treat other parables in the same manner. Revelation 12 begins by identifying the woman clothed with the sun as "a great wonder in heaven." "Wonder" is simply the word "sign," or "symbol."
- In Biblical symbolism, each element corresponds to something real. In the Parable of the Sower, everything Jesus says has a meaning. There is no meaningless detail. Likewise in the pageant of Revelation 12, the woman, the dragon, the stars, the deeds of the actors—all have prophetic significance.
- The Bible interprets its own symbolism. Who is the woman clothed with the sun? Her setting in the midst of the sun, the moon, and twelve stars recalls the dream of Joseph (Gen. 37:9-10), which used similar imagery to signify the family of Jacob. We conclude that the woman is Israel. Who is the dragon? The Book of Revelation says he is Satan (Rev. 20:2).
- Biblical symbols are always appropriate. We said earlier that leaven represents sin. Consider what leaven is. The chemical reactions that cause a lump of dough to rise are the work of minute vegetable organisms called yeast, a type of fungus. A distinctive property of all fungi is their lack of chlorophyll. As nongreen plants, they are incapable of making their own food. They must draw nourishment from other organisms, whether living or dead. Yeast is a fungus that, in feeding itself, converts bread sugars into alcohol (which disappears during baking) and carbon dioxide, a gas. Notice that the leavening effect of the yeast depends on its destruction of a nourishing and flavorful food substance. As an agent of destruction and decay, leaven is a fitting symbol for something evil.
Interpreting history and prophecy
Some leading evangelical scholars treat large portions of the Bible as mere metaphor or symbolism. They especially resist a literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. Also, they dispute many of the literal meanings that our forefathers found in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. But in light of the principles presented here under the rule of literalism, we see that metaphorical and symbolic interpretations do not fit the texts in question.
- These texts cannot be metaphorical unless their literal sense is impossible, untrue, or trivial. But God could, if He wanted, create the world in six days. He could build a city out of gold. The majority of believing Christians have never found any difficulty in the literal meanings that some now reject.
- These texts cannot be symbolic unless there is meaning in all the details. But virtually none of the details in the creation account have meaning if it is not literally true. It is just a nice story with hardly any connections to fact. Likewise for Bible prophecy. Either it is literally true, or it has almost no content with distinct and specific meaning.