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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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The Bible is its Own Best Interpreter

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

Many excellent books have been written that discuss the principles involved in understanding the Bible. Within churches of Christ, for example, several fine volumes have been produced to assist the Christian in comprehending the Bible’s intended meanings (e.g., Dungan, 1888; Lockhart, 1901; Kearley, et al., 1986). One feature of the process of interpreting the Bible is the Bible’s own ability to shed light on its meaning. The Holy Spirit caused the Bible to be written with the specific intention that people would be able to understand its message. Consequently, the Bible shares in common with other books the basic characteristics that one might expect any piece of written communication to possess. It utilizes the same laws of thought and language, and it assumes that the honest, sincere, dedicated student can arrive at the meanings intended by the Author.

Perhaps the greatest deterrent to a proper interpretation of the Bible is the widespread and growing sense of uncertainty in the acquisition of absolute truth. American civilization has been inundated with pluralism, and has been brow-beaten into accepting the notion that one belief is as good as another, and that it really does not matter what one believes. Since so many people hold to so many conflicting beliefs, it is commonly thought that no one should be so intolerant, arrogant, and mean-spirited as to think that he has a corner on truth. One belief is as good as another, so we are told. And the same principle applies to religion, ethics, and virtually every other facet of human existence. Agnosticism (the philosophical posture that insists that one cannot know) has literally come to dominate our society. Perhaps the majority of Americans now feel that one cannot know whether the God of the Bible exists, whether the Bible is the one and only Word of God, whether Christianity is the only true religion, or whether New Testament Christianity is distinguishable from denominationalism.

TRUTH, LOGIC, AND KNOWLEDGE

At the heart of the issue of how the Bible should be interpreted, and whether the Bible is its own best interpreter, lies the deeper question of whether we humans are capable of knowing anything for certain, whether we can use logic to reason correctly, and whether we can arrive at truth. These preconditions for understanding the Bible may seem obvious and self-evident to Christians. But we are living at a time in which most people have been influenced to think that we cannot be certain about knowing anything. It goes without saying that this viewpoint is self-contradictory. Yet many continue to believe it.

Of course, the Bible is filled with statements that presuppose (and, in fact, absolutely demand) that we reason correctly, weigh evidence, and come to correct conclusions regarding God’s will. Through Isaiah, God beckoned: “Come now, and let us reason together” (1:18), and “State your case, that you may be acquitted” (43:26). The noble Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Paul said he was appointed for “the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:17). He insisted that the Thessalonians “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). He told Timothy to rightly divide the word of truth and to correct those who were in opposition (2 Timothy 2:15,25). Peter urged us to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). John warned: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). And Jude said that we must “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). Every single one of these verses, and many, many more, demand that the individual engage in a process of assessing facts, investigating circumstances, weighing evidence, diligent thinking, and reasoning, in order to arrive at the truth.

Yet, the magnitude of disagreement that exists in the world is astonishing. It is frustrating, depressing, heart-rending, and mind-boggling. For example, in American politics, a wide range of viewpoints exists with a multiplicity of variations and shades. How can so many politicians adamantly insist that abortion is absolutely right and good, while many other politicians, with equal vigor, insist that abortion is evil and wrong? How can people be so diametrically opposed to each other’s viewpoints? In religion, the diversity and cleavage is incredible. Christendom is hopelessly divided due to differing doctrinal views. The vast majority of those who claim to be following Christ adamantly maintain that water immersion is not necessary to salvation. Millions believe that it is appropriate to sprinkle infants, or to worship God with instruments of music, or that you cannot fall from grace. The religious division that exists in the entire world is even more staggering, since, for example, Islam (representing over a billion people) and Hinduism (representing about a billion people) are in absolute and complete contradiction to each other. By the very nature of their views, they cannot possibly “agree to disagree.” Atheism maintains that all religion is crazy. Karl Marx said that religion is the “opiate of the people.” So to the communist, evolutionist, and atheist, religion is actually harmful and detrimental to society.

With such irreparable, irreversibly deep diversity, no wonder so many have thrown up their hands and concluded that we cannot know for sure who is right and who is wrong (or perhaps more commonly, it really does not matter what is right and wrong). But after surveying the disconcerting, discouraging condition of the world’s lack of interest in ascertaining spiritual reality, one can return once again to the Bible, bring the entire state of affairs back into focus, and make perfect sense of the situation. It has ever been this way! The vast majority of humanity has always chosen to go its own way—for a variety of reasons and motivations. But the truth can be ascertained! Hence, they are all without excuse (cf. Romans 1:20).

The notion that the Bible is its own best interpreter was articulated during the Reformation as a reaction to the Catholic notion that the church was the final interpreter of God’s Word. The reformers took issue with this claim, and insisted instead that “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres). What they meant was that the totality of the Bible must be allowed to interpret every part of the Bible. Thus, “no part of Scripture can be so interpreted as to deform the teaching of the whole of Scripture” (Ramm, et al., 1987, p. 23). As Milton Terry observed: “God’s written word, taken as a whole, and allowed to speak for itself, will be found to be its own best interpreter” (n.d., p. 162; cf. p. 222).

There is much to be said for the recognition that to really understand the Bible—to really know the Bible—one must study the Bible book by book, giving attention to the contextual variables that characterize each individual book, and grasping the overall argument and line of reasoning inherent in each book. Clinton Lockhart, a Christian who authored a textbook on hermeneutics in 1901 that, by some estimations, surpasses the work of Dungan, pointed out that “no man that reads the Bible merely as a collection of proverbs or disconnected texts can ever understand the real nature of the sacred volume” (p. 233). Indeed, there is no substitute or shortcut to Bible interpretation. One must develop a broad and thorough familiarity with the entire Bible

THE BIBLE:
ITS OWN BEST INTERPRETER ON HOLY SPIRIT BAPTISM

The Scriptures contain within them the keys to their own interpretation. Take, for example, the question of Holy Spirit baptism. The charismatic community typically associates the expression “Holy Spirit baptism” with the phenomenon that enables the believer to speak in tongues, heal someone, or work other miracles. In other words, Holy Spirit baptism is simply a generic reference to miraculous empowerment. Anyone who can speak in a tongue or perform any other miraculous action is said to have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. He is said to be “Spirit-filled.” However, the Bible actually alludes to Holy Spirit baptism in a very narrow, specialized, even technical sense (see Miller, 2003). Just because a person could speak in tongues or work miracles did not necessarily mean he or she had been baptized in the Holy Spirit. The principle of the Bible being its own best interpreter is well illustrated in the verses that allude directly to Holy Spirit baptism: Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5; and Acts 11:16. In all three verses, Holy Spirit baptism is mentioned by name, and the language that is employed links the three occasions together. Thus, one critical principle involved in allowing the Bible to interpret itself is to recognize and accept the explicit explanations that verses often give on a particular subject.

THE BIBLE:
ITS OWN BEST INTERPRETER ON BAPTISM AS A SYMBOL

Another example where we see the Bible being its own best interpreter pertains to baptism. The Protestant world has insisted that water baptism is a secondary and subsequent action to salvation. Various religionists have maintained that it serves as “an outward sign of an inward grace.” They claim that baptism is a symbol—a visible expression of the forgiveness already received at the point of faith. But the Bible nowhere articulates this provocative, illicit concept. It is the figment of someone’s vivid imagination that has been taken up and repeated so often that it sounds “biblical.” When Ananias prodded Paul to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16), he said nothing about an alleged symbolic cleansing or post-forgiveness washing. He uttered not one word that would lead the unbiased reader to even remotely conclude that Paul’s sins were washed away before he was baptized.

The grammar that the Holy Spirit selected by which to express Himself is very often a key to allowing the Bible to interpret itself. In Acts 22:16, the grammar further militates against the denominational interpretation so often placed on Paul’s baptism. The Holy Spirit utilized two participles and two verbs in verse 16 that clarify His intended meaning:

anastas is an aorist active participle: “having arisen” or “rising”

baptisai is an aorist middle imperative verb: “get yourself baptized”

apolousai is also an aorist middle imperative verb: “get your sins washed away”

epikalesamenos is an aorist middle participle: “you will have been calling”

An adverbial participle is a participle that is used as an adverb to modify the verb. “Calling” is an adverbial participle of manner. It shows the manner in which the main verbs are accomplished. The verbs (“baptized” and “wash away sins”)—joined by the coordinate conjunction “and” (kai)—are “causative middles” (Robertson, 1934, p. 808) in the aorist tense, and so relate to the aorist middle of the participle that follows (“calling”). Hence, a literal translation would be: “Having arisen, get yourself baptized and get your sins washed away, and you will have been calling on the name of the Lord.” In other words, Ananias was telling Paul that the way to accomplish “calling on the Lord” was to be baptized and have his sins washed away. The Holy Spirit deliberately formulated the grammar of every passage in the Bible so that His writing would interpret itself!

But doesn’t the Bible teach that baptism is, in fact, a symbol? Doesn’t baptism have “symbolic” significance? Yes, the Bible assigns symbolic significance to baptism in regard to at least three distinct features. Paul said that water baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He used the terms “likeness” and “form” to pinpoint this symbolism (Romans 6:5,17). He later identified a symbolic link between baptism and Old Testament circumcision—the idea that as skin was cut off by circumcision, so sins are cut off at baptism (Colossians 2:11-12). Peter added a third instance of baptism’s symbolic value. He compared a person passing through the water of baptism in order to be saved (by Christ’s resurrection) with the eight persons who were saved “by,” i.e., through (dia) the water of the Flood of Noah’s day (1 Peter 3:20-21). Notice carefully how the Bible is its own best interpreter: baptism symbolizes: (1) Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection; (2) the “cutting off” of circumcision; and (3) the waters of the Flood. How in the world could anyone get out of this that baptism symbolizes past forgiveness that was achieved prior to being baptized?

THE BIBLE:
ITS OWN BEST INTERPRETER ON THE NEW BIRTH

The account of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus has certainly spawned a great deal of resistance to the role of water baptism in God’s scheme of redemption. While the bulk of Christendom for most of the last 2,000 years has recognized that “water” in John 3:5 is an allusion to water baptism (Shepherd, 1894, pp. 320-338), in the last few decades, many have attempted to assign a different meaning to the word—everything from “blood,” “sperm,” and the “Spirit” to the “water” that accompanies the physical birth of a child (i.e., amniotic fluid). However, once again, the Bible is its own best interpreter.

The context yields three useful factors. In the first place, Nicodemus thought being “born again” entailed physical birth (vs. 4). Jesus would not have followed up that misunderstanding by confirming it! If “water” in verse five refers to physical birth, then the flow of thought was that when Nicodemus asked if Jesus was referring to physical birth, Jesus responded that He was: “Do I have to be born physically a second time from my mother’s womb?” “Yes, you must be born of water….” In the second place, Jesus would not have told Nicodemus that one of the prerequisites for getting into the spiritual kingdom is physical birth. That would have Jesus making the redundant and ridiculous statement: “Before you can get into My kingdom, you first have to become a human being.” To frame such a statement would not only make Jesus appear oblivious to the fact that Nicodemus was already a human being, but also would put Jesus in the absurd position of thinking He needed to inform all non-humans (i.e., the animals) that they are not permitted entrance into the kingdom.

In the third place, while multiple occurrences of the same word in the same context can have different meanings, attendant extenuating circumstances would be necessary in order to realize the distinction. No such factors are evident, especially since, eighteen verses later, the writer informs us that John the baptizer “was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there” (John 3:23, emp. added). Was John baptizing in that location because there was much amniotic fluid there? Or because there was much blood there? Or because the Holy Spirit was there? The Bible is indeed its own best interpreter!

THE BIBLE:
ITS OWN BEST INTERPRETER ON THE KINGDOM

Premillennialists are fond of calling attention to the concluding prophetic remarks of Amos: “‘On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,’ says the Lord who does this thing” (Amos 9:11-12). They insist that the fulfillment of this prophecy is yet future. They say the Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans (Matthew 23:37-24:35), will be rebuilt on the Temple platform in Jerusalem (a site currently occupied by the third most holy shrine of Islam—the Dome of the Rock). They say that Jesus will return after the Rapture, the Tribulation, and Armageddon, and set up His millennial kingdom. They say He will reign on a literal throne for a thousand years, and incorporate the Gentiles, in addition to the nation of Israel, into His kingdom. On the face of it, this prophecy certainly possesses terminology that fits the millenarian interpretation placed upon it.

However, two Bible passages dispute this interpretation, and settle the question as to the proper application of Amos’ prophecy. The first is the great Messianic prophecy uttered by the prophet Nathan to King David regarding David’s future lineage and royal dynasty (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Nathan declared that God would establish and sustain the Davidic dynasty. Even though he also noted that a permanent form of the Tabernacle (that God refused to allow David to build [2 Samuel 7:1-7]) would be built by David’s son (i.e., Solomon), God, Himself, would build David a house, i.e., a dynasty, a kingly lineage. It is this lineage to which Amos referred—not a physical temple building.

The second passage that clarifies Amos’ prophecy is the account of the Jerusalem “conference” (Acts 15). Following Peter’s report regarding Gentile inclusion in the kingdom, James offered the following confirmatory comment: “Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written” (Acts 15:13-15). James then quoted Amos 9:11-12. In other words, on that most auspicious occasion, James was noting two significant facts that had come to pass precisely as predicted by Amos: (1) after the downfall of the Jewish kingdom, the Davidic dynasty had been reinstated in the person of Christ—the “Son of David” (Matthew 22:42)—Who, at His ascension, had been enthroned in heaven, thereby “rebuilding the tabernacle of David that had fallen down”; and (2) with the conversion of the first Gentiles in Acts 10, as reported on this occasion by Peter, the “residue of men,” or the non-Jewish segment of humanity, was now “seeking the Lord.” I repeat: the Bible is its own best interpreter.

A fitting conclusion to this feature of God’s amazing Word might be the remark made by Peter on the occasion of the establishment of the church of Christ on Earth. You no doubt remember how he and his fellow apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak foreign languages to the international audience gathered on that occasion were nevertheless accused of being intoxicated. After noting it was too early in the day for such an explanation to be plausible, he prefaced his quotation of Joel with the following words: “This is that….” Much of the effort that we expend in coming to a correct understanding of God’s Word will be directed toward that very goal. Peter was telling his Pentecost audience: the Bible is its own best interpreter.

REFERENCES

Dungan, D.R. (1888), Hermeneutics (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).

Kearley, F. Furman, Edward P. Myers, and Timothy D. Hadley, eds. (1986), Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Lockhart, Clinton (1915), Principles of Interpretation (Delight, AR: Gospel Light), revised edition.

Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2572.

Ramm, Bernard, et al. (1987), Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Robertson, A.T. (1934), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman).

Shepherd, J.W. (1894), Handbook on Baptism (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1972 reprint).

Terry, Milton (no date), Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), reprint.




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