Some Basic Principles of Biblical Interpretation Honored by Inductive Exegesis
Effective Bible study involves both a proven method of study and recognized principles of interpretation. In fact, our method of Bible study should enable and force us to abide by sound principles of interpretation.
A Bible student is much like a good detective; he must know where to look for clues (i.e., biblical evidence), how to go about finding them, and how to interpret his information properly. He gathers information, classifies it, evaluates it, and reasons to valid and true conclusions. Methodical Bible study implies an orderly, logical, and effective arrangement of steps for investigating the Scripture. Thus, Bible students face two questions: (1) What steps must I follow? and (2) In what order should I engage in these steps? The steps involved in the method of Bible study introduced in this chapter and their order of arrangement integrate basic and necessary principles of interpretation. Indeed, a good method forces the student to follow necessary principles of interpretation. The goal of this method of inductive Bible study is direct and independent Bible study.
1. Bible study must begin with humility and prayer for God’s help.
Bible study is both a rational process and a spiritual process. Since God has sought to communicate to man through a rational communication—the Bible, we must approach biblical interpretation rationally. However, since we are attempting to understand the infinite mind of an infinite God, we need divine help in our understanding.
Paul told the Corinthians that man cannot know God’s redemptive truth by scientific exploration or physical observation [i.e., “eye” or “ear”] nor by philosophical activity [i.e., “the mind of man”] (1 Cor. 2:7-9). Man does know the mind of God, anymore than we know the minds of other people, until it is revealed to us. Just as only the spirits in people know their minds, only the Spirit of God knows the mind of God. So God’s mind had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:7-13). The Bible presents to us the mind of God as revealed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Even though the truth of God has been revealed and recorded in the Bible, the natural man has difficulty in understanding this Revelation—the Bible. Paul indicates that we need the aid of the Holy Spirit in understanding this revelation (1 Cor. 2:14-16). It also stands to reason that the Spirit that dwells in us will help us to understand the Bible. Communication of God’s truth has been a primary work of the Spirit. Since He dwells in the Christian, it would seem absurd for Him to not help us understand the Bible. Why would He not help us understand that which He has so diligently sought to communicate to us?
Four things should be obvious. First, God will not “reveal” one interpretation to one person, another meaning to someone else, and even another meaning to someone else. The Spirit is not confused and does not contradict himself. Second, He will not “reveal” a meaning for a text that is not supported by the details in the text. The details in the text are included to lead to the author’s intended meaning. Third, He will not “reveal” a meaning that contradicts the details in the text. Four, God will not “reveal” an interpretation that contradicts what He has said in other plain passages in the Bible. Meaning will be supported by the historical setting of the text and the facts within the text.
2. Bible students must be highly motivated by the spirit of research.
First, you must be curious–must have an overpowering desire to learn valuable truth. It is comfortable to be content or satisfied with what we know. But we must learn to be content without being complacent. Complacency makes life dull and stunts productivity, but curiosity makes life interesting and optimizes productivity.
Second, we must be skeptical. Only the credulous, those who have a will to believe, will truly accept what becomes evident; those who are incredulous will be “ever learning, but never coming to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). However, we must be skeptical enough to demand evidence before we believe. We must demand adequate and relevant evidence before we accept a claim. When good evidence is not yet available, a wise student (i.e., skeptical person) will exercise the right to suspend judgment on the issue until proof is available (1 Thess. 5:21).
If we fail to demand adequate relevant evidence, we will become slaves to dogma rather than people of strong conviction. Dogma is promoted without adequate and relevant evidence while strong conviction is held because of compelling evidence. The effective Bible student must “prove all things” and stand by that which is true (1 Thess. 5:21).
Third, we must be open minded. A good Bible student will take a firm stand for what available relevant evidence indicates. However, we must also recognize that there may be evidence that we have not yet discovered. When additional evidence changes the case, we should yield to its force and change our convictions to what the evidence indicates.
Absolute truth does not change. However, human investigators must always recognize that we might have overlooked some evidence or reasoned fallaciously while considering a question. Open-minded students of the Word are not too committed to former conclusions to move in whatever direction newly discovered evidence demands.
We should be confident, but not cocky. Our views should be tentative and contingent, so we can change when the evidence demands change. Profitable Bible study requires us to be seekers after truth, not defenders of cherished doctrinal statements. Closed minds prevent growth. Someone has said, “If anyone thinks he has all the answers in a nutshell, that’s probably where he has them–in a nutshell.”
Fourth, we must be objective. The objective student arrives at truth on the basis of the evidence. He yields to the evidence regardless of his feelings and personal ideas. The opposite of objectivity is subjectivity. Subjective students arrive at conclusions on the basis of their feelings and personal preferences. They allow their personal feelings and ideas to cause them to ignore the obvious force of the evidence and to reason fallaciously.
Subjective students seek to speak to the Bible. They are guilty of eisegesis; they seek to put their own ideas into the Bible. Objective students let the Bible speak to them. They engage in exegesis (i.e., seek to draw out truth from the Bible). They reason inductively, basing their general conclusions upon a collection of specific evidence. Deduction (i.e., reasoning from generalizations to specific conclusions) is a safe approach only when beginning generalizations (i.e., first premises) are well supported by evidence and arrived at inductively. We must place ourselves in the objective position and be directed in belief and action by the Bible. We must avoid the temptation to place ourselves in the subjective position and direct the Bible to our beliefs and actions.
3. Study the Bible directly and independently. Biblical truth can be trusted only when the Bible is our sourcebook, not books about the Bible. We should not begin our study by consulting commentaries and expositions (i.e., sermons and books of theology) on the Scripture. The time to consult commentaries and books of exposition is after we have searched out and made notes of all the evidence available and drawn an independent conclusion. Even then, we should consult commentaries and books of topical exposition to see if they reveal biblical data which we have overlooked or to which we have not yet been exposed. Then we should add such evidence to our body of evidence and reinterprets. We should also check to see how other expositors interpret the evidence we have. Nevertheless, we should not change unless the evidence and clear reasoning prove our conclusions wrong. Our concern is not what others might think or say, but we are interested in what the Bible actually says. We must avoid importing conclusions into the Bible from present-day sources, our biases, or our feelings about what we need.
4. Study the Bible as the plenary and verbally inspired word of God. The Bible is divine in its origin and purpose. As the word of God, it is product of the plenary verbal inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, “verbal” does not mean “mechanical dictation”; it means that the Holy Spirit supervised the writers’ selection of words. Thus, the writers used the words which best express the ideas God intended for them to communicate.
Since God makes no errors and is above all authorities, His word is inerrant and authoritative. It is true and authoritative, always and in every part. Biblical writers considered the meaning of specific words and their grammatical forms when interpreting other Scriptures. The writer of Hebrews emphasized the importance of the words Son, God, all things, brethren, today, and rest as he interpreted the Old Testament (Heb. 1:5-6; 1:9; 2:6-8; 2:11-12; 3:7-11). Jesus emphasized the words Lord and God in establishing his identity from Psalm 110:1 (Matt. 22:45). Jesus also emphasized the present tense of “I am” when He emphasized the fact that Exodus 3:6 teaches the survival and the resurrection of man (Matt. 22:32). In proving His preexistence and His divinity from Exodus 3:14, Jesus also emphasized the present tense of “I am” (John 8:58). When interpreting Genesis 12:7, Paul established the unique person of Christ by emphasizing that the singular number of the noun “seed” referred to Christ (Gal. 3:16). Present day interpreters must follow the pattern set by Jesus and inspired men and consider the importance of every word and the grammar of the Scripture which he would study
5. Study the Bible historically to determine the occasional context–i.e., the problems, questions, and needs that created the need for the writing. The political, cultural, and religious background of a biblical document aids us in understanding the significance and meaning of what is said in it. The following historical data, that can be gathered from a document itself, are necessary for an adequate understanding of what we study: the writer–his identity, character, and circumstances; the recipients–their identity, character, and circumstances; the occasion–what was going on that evoked the writing of the document; the purpose–what the author intended to accomplish by the book; the theme–the central idea of the book as a whole; the time of writing; key words, phrases, and ideas. A historical analysis of a book aids in introducing the book (i.e., leads a student into a study of it). The historical analysis reveals the historical context that is essential for accurate interpretation.
6 Study the Bible structurally to determine the book context. Successful interpretation requires that a biblical statement be looked at in its book context. A structural analysis reveals how every part of the document relates to each other and how they all relate to the whole (the main point or thesis of a book). You can establish the structure of a book by writing a one sentence summary for every paragraph; then arranging these summaries into an outline through coordination and subordination. Those who do not look at structure–the main point and how it is supported–usually draw conclusions not intended by the writer and make applications God does not approve because they interpret statements out of context.
7. Study the Bible syntactically to determine relationships between sentence parts. Syntactical study reveals how the parts of a sentence were put together to say precisely what the writer wanted to say. It actually analyzes the structure of smaller units of a document (i.e., paragraphs and sentences). It yields a simple diagram of each paragraph and each sentence in a paragraph. This diagram reveals who did what, to whom, for whom, when, where, how, why, and to what extent. Single words are vehicles of ideas, but the way words are put together in a communication act impacts their meanings.
Composition combines several propositional statements into one sentence and many sentences into one paragraph, a larger unit of thought developed by the smaller units called sentences. A syntactical analysis separates sentences and reveals how they relate to each other and to the central idea of a paragraph. It separates sentences into kernel sentences and modifiers so that students can discern every statement or proposition contained in each sentence and how they relate to each other and to the whole.
8. Study the Bible semantically to determine the meanings of words and phrases. Semantics deals with word meaning. Words are symbols of ideas. You cannot understand a statement until you understand what the words that make it up mean. Though Bible students may study word meaning from dictionaries, lexicons, word study books, and concordances, the most exciting, revealing, and rewarding way to study word meaning is through surveying the use made of particular words in passages where they are used.
Usage studies are performed inductively. This is better than deductive word studies. Deductive word studies focus on the general meaning and attempt to look at particular nuances which are included in the general meaning. Conversely, inductive word studies focus on particular uses in specific passages. These inductive studies gather specific data and generalize from them what the precise and complete meaning is in a text of interest. Inductive study anchors our final conclusions and interpretations more firmly in the biblical text.
Deductive studies are safe only when the generalizations serving as the premises (i.e., evidence) are based only on adequate and relevant evidence reflected in biblical texts. In both deductive and inductive study, even when we begin with a strongly supported generalization, there is a temptation to assign a nuance of meaning to a word which conforms to ideas and feelings we already have.
Words do not have only root meanings. They have compositional, resultant, and remote meanings. Words also may have either literal or figurative significance. Consequently, etymological studies alone do not reveal all the meanings of a word. It is essential that you note the context carefully to ascertain the meaning a writer had in mind when he wrote a particular text.
It is imperative to know both the semantic field (i.e., the general meaning of a word) and the semantic context (i.e., the meaning in a particular text). Since words are used with different shades or nuances of meaning from one context to another, knowledge of the semantic context is essential for accurate interpretation.
9. Study the Bible grammatically to uncover the propositional significance of grammar and syntax. In analyzing a sentence in order to lay open its various propositions or statements, you will find that your insights into the English Bible are expanded by discovering complete word meanings, becoming aware of what modifies what, and analyzing grammar.
The understanding of sentence grammar magnifies sentence meaning and brings to light propositional truth implied by grammar. For example, the perfect tense indicates that the action, process, or state represented by the verb took place in past time, but its effect continues on at the time of writing or speaking.
For complete understanding of a statement, you must consider the tense, voice, and mood of verbs and the syntactical use of each. You should consider the presence or absence of the definite article with nouns, the case of nouns, and the case with which a preposition is used. You will also be greatly rewarded for considering the use of the tenses of participles and infinitives and how they are used.
Such information is primarily accessible to the student of Greek. However, it is not completely out of the reach of the student who doesn’t use Greek. Many critical and exegetical commentaries give this information and explain its significance. But, commentaries do not lead to independent Bible study; they give us the conclusions of others.
10. Study the Bible contextually. When you read or analyze a statement, you have discovered what the Bible says. Knowing what it says, you must look at this in its various contexts to discover what it means. What a biblical statement means is what it meant to its author and first readers–them, there, and then. Application or significance is what it means to the interpreter and his audience–us, here, and now.
All of the following contexts inevitably contribute to the meaning of a text.
(1) Historical Context: The writers’ statements were meant to be interpreted in the cultural, political, and religious situation of their first readers.
(2) Book Context: A particular passage must be interpreted in the light of how it fits into the overall book. We must ask how it relates to the central idea of the book to help prove, explain, illustrate, or apply it.
(3) Pericope or Wider Context: Most books of the Bible can be divided into sections that support the main point of the book. Each statement fits within one of these main sections (i.e., pericopes). A passage must be interpreted in the light of its function in the pericope.
(4) Immediate Context: Each sentence in a paragraph supports the central idea of the paragraph. It will either give facts to prove, explanations that clarify, or illustrations that clarify or apply the central idea. Each paragraph relates to the ones immediately before and the ones immediately following. What is said must be interpreted in harmony with the content and function of the immediate context. Contextual study considers the following: Who is speaking? To whom? When? Under what circumstances? To support or negate what idea? To deal with what problem? To correct what situation?
(5) Canonical or Remote Context: When a statement about a subject is unclear, clear statements on the subject must be sought out to determine what the Bible teaches on the subject. The Bible is its own best commentary. Since we view the Bible as a unit, our interpretations of difficult passages must never contradict clear statements in other passages.
11. Honor the silence of the Scripture. In matters about which the Scripture does not speak, we must never presume to bind beliefs and practices. The Bible does not speak about many themes about which men are curios and often speculate. Repeatedly the Bible instructs us to do particular things but does not tell us precisely how or by what means. In such areas the Bible is silent; and where the Bible is silent, we must keep silent.
Many are often inclined to bind precepts from their cultural or religious heritage in areas where the Bible is silent, but should not. We are forbidden to either add to or to take from “that which is written” (Rev. 22:18, 19). We are also instructed not to think of men above “that which is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Likewise, we are forbidden to change or distort the word of God (Gal. 1:6-9).
Frequently the Bible speaks in specific language, providing particular details on how and by what means something is to be done. In such cases, the Bible is not silent. Quite frequently, however, the Bible makes general statements that do not include particular details nor specify how or by what means an action is to be performed. In such statements, specifics fit into the realm of the silence of the Scripture.
When biblical statements are intentionally specific, they intentionally exclude whatever would contradict or be the opposite of that which is specified. Specific or particular statements limit. Consequently, by specific statements or commands, Bible students are limited. In such cases, the Scriptures are not silent in regard to what it includes or excludes; they implicitly limit what we are to believe or practice to that which is specified.
For example, when the Lord told Philip to “go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza,” He excluded every other road by the specifying and limiting clause (Acts 8:26). When Jesus told his disciples to “Go into all the world,” He, by His silence regarding how to travel (i.e., by providing no limiting element), gave man freedom to choose from any mode of travel that is expedient (Mark 16:15).
12. Distinguish between principles that give permission and principles that set forth imperatives. Statements that approve actions and those that relate accounts of approved action give us permission to perform the actions involved. However, statements not backed by antecedent commands only give permission; they do not set forth imperatives (i.e., bind requirements).
When an account of action is backed by antecedent theology or a command, it sets forth an imperative belief or activity. If the antecedent command is general (i.e., does not specify who, what, when, how, what kind, how many, and to what extent.), it gives general authority. In such cases we are granted freedom, not restricted by form. If the antecedent command is specific (i.e., specifies who, what, when, how, what kind, how many, and to what extent). it gives authority that is restricted by the particulars of the command. In these cases, we are restricted by form, not granted freedom.
An account of specific action that is backed by a general command does not constitute exclusive authority. In other words, it does not require that the command be carried out only in this one particular way. It simply gives specific permission to perform the action commanded in that particular way. For example, biblical accounts of people baptizing in rivers do not require that baptism be performed only in rivers or streams. They do show one of the places where it is permissible for immersion to be done. The background command to baptize is general in regard to the kind of place to baptize. It does not specify one exclusive type of place where we must baptize. The examples of the church being instructed in only one assembly (1 Cor. 11-16; Acts 3) does not establish a specific imperative and exclude teaching in separate classes–because the command to teach does not specify only one assembly.
If an account of action is backed by a specific command (i.e., one that specifies one or more of the following: who, what, when, how, what kind, how many, and to what extent), then the account of action (i.e., example) illustrates one or more particulars that are imperative. Accounts that show baptism being done by immersion set forth an imperative. These examples are imperative because the background command specifically requires immersion. In New Testament times the word baptize (Gr. baptidzo ) exclusively meant immerse or submerge. Also, Paul points out that people who are baptized are buried in water (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Moreover, the account of the disciples coming together on the first day of the week (i.e., Sunday) to take the Lord’s Supper establishes an imperative (Acts 20:7). They were commanded to assemble (Heb. 10:25) on every first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1, 2) to take the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11: 20-34).
13. Distinguish between principles that are local and temporary and those that are universal and permanent. When a command, example, or necessary implication limits the time, the subjects, or a time-bound purpose, it is local and temporary–binding only on specific people, for a specific time, and for a specific purpose which is also limited to a particular time. Likewise, biblical authority is local and temporary when the context of its statement implies it is limited in time and scope.
The following examples support the claim that some authority is local and temporary. When God commanded Noah to build an ark to be saved, the context reveals that the command was limited, local and temporary, and ark building is not required of all people of all times for salvation (Gen. 6:13-22). When Paul instructed Timothy to bring his coat and his books to him in prison, it is implied by the context that the command is limited to Timothy, to that particular time, and to that purpose (2 Tim. 4;9-18).
Subsequent revelation might also limit the time and scope of permission or a requirement. Consider the following example of Sabbath keeping. God gave the commandment to keep the Sabbath to Israel (Ex. 20:8), and those who broke the Sabbath law were judged (Num. 15:32-36). When the priesthood changed, God’s law changed (Heb. 7:12), and man is not to be judged in regard to Sabbaths (Col. 2:16). The time of Sabbath keeping is limited by subsequent (i.e., later) revelation. Without the limitations stated here, the biblical authority requiring Sabbath keeping would be universal and permanent.
Many contend earnestly that all imperatives stated in the Old Testament were limited to the time before the establishment of the church, unless they are restated in the New Testament. However, this cannot be true. Since God’s nature never changes, any Old Testament imperative that is rooted in the nature of God (i.e., required because of the nature of God) and reflects the moral character of God is a universal and permanent principle. The ultimate standard of good is God.
Written moral code reflects the moral character of God. Even as God revealed himself before the written law was given, the standard of good was revealed and the people were without excuse for their moral decay (Rom. 1:18-32). When men come short of the glory of God, they sin (Rom. 3:23). Since God is the God of all men of all times and never changes, moral principles based on his nature are universal and permanent.
Although, all eternal and universal imperatives and principles stated in the Old Testament might not be restated in the New Testament, many are. Old Testament imperatives and principles that are restated in the New Testament as universal and eternal law are obviously still binding on all people today. likewise, universal and eternal imperatives and principles, although not restated in the New Testament, are still binding.
14. Interpret and apply Scripture in harmony with the nature of God, the purpose of the coming of Christ, and the nature of the Christian religion–its theological context. Since the Bible is a revelation of the infinite mind of God, a rule requiring interpretations and applications to harmonize with the nature of God and forbidding them to contradict His nature is axiomatic. The nature and purpose of God and the Christian religion must always be considered as weightier than the letter of the law. The letter of law, without consideration of God’s nature and purpose will mislead us.
Some tend to see God through narrowly focused blinders. They are so focused on a particular attribute of God that they are blinded to his other attributes. By being so focused on the love of God, some fail to see His intolerance toward rebellion and disobedience. Conversely, some who are so focused on the judgment and intolerance of God toward the disobedient fail to see the mercy and tolerance of God toward the ignorant and those who are misled.
We must maintain a balanced view of God and interpret and apply His word in harmony with the following. Although submission to God requires us to seek to know and do His will, He extends mercy and grace toward believers who, through human limitations, fail to achieve perfection (1 John 1:7-9). However, He also threatens severe judgment upon all who reject His mercy and grace by refusing to believe or acting against good faith (Heb. 10:26). Those focused only on the grace of God see Him as an indulgent Father and handle His word with a permissive bent. On the other hand, those focused only on the judgment of God see Him as a merciless tyrant and handle His word with an intolerant bent. Nevertheless, those who maintain a balanced view of God will handle His word with neither a permissive nor intolerant bent.
In their zeal for the letter of the law, the Pharisees neglected the weightier matters, judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). God is love (1 John 4:7,8). Love does no harm to its neighbor, but is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10). Any act that is unloving contradicts God’s nature, and contradicts the law rather than fulfills it. Interpretations and applications which justify unloving acts are wrong, even though they might fulfill the letter of the law. In such cases, they may fulfill the letter of the law while contradicting the purpose of the law.
15. Interpret and apply its teachings as a system of grace, mercy, and salvation rather than as a system of law, intolerance, and condemnation. God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him (John 3:17). Jesus sees the sinfulness of our wrong deeds and the falseness of our mistaken ideas, but He offers salvation to the sinful and misled. He does not condemn those who truly believe for sinfulness, but saves us from it. He offers Christian fellowship and blessings to those who walk in the light (i.e., seek to live in harmony with God who is the light) even though we cannot say we have no sin. It is those who confess our present and continuing sinfulness that He presently and continually cleanses by His blood (1 John 1:7-10).
Because of cleansing by His blood, Jesus pronounces believers sinful and wrong without pronouncing us as without hope. The system of grace and mercy declares all unbelievers/unfaithful lost. Yet, the system of grace and mercy declares the faithful saved, even when we err in thought and deed.
Those who willfully pursue the way of ignorance or do what they know is wrong have cast their lot with the unbelievers. Belief requires submission to God’s will. Those who do not care enough to try to know what his will is are not submissive, and consequently are not believers.
The above being true, we can determine what is right or wrong according to what we know and understand the Bible to teach. Also, according to law, we could say that those who are wrong are lost. But under a system of grace, it is one thing to declare people wrong and another to say they are lost. Under a system that is exclusively legal, one sin, deliberate or not, brings spiritual death. But under a system of law tempered by grace, sins done without malice are not sins unto death (1 John 5:14-17; cf. 1 John 1:7-9; Rom. 4:8).
From passages representing or illustrating a legal system, we must never establish a principle to govern who is lost and who is saved under a system of grace and mercy. In a legal system, there are examples of how to tell right from wrong under any system that includes law, even a system under which law is tempered by grace. However, in a legal system, some who are lost might have been saved under a system of grace. Such examples do not, therefore, establish who is saved and who is lost under a system of grace.
Let me explain this further. Under an exclusively legal system, to say that someone is wrong is the same as saying she/he is lost. On the other hand, under a system of law tempered by grace, i.e., Christianity, to say that someone is wrong is not the same as saying she/he is lost. Under a system of law and grace combined, a person who is faithful but wrong is still saved–saved “by grace through faith.”
16. Consider contextual evidence for what the writer did or did not intend to include in a statement. An interpreter has no right to attribute anything to a writer that he did not intend to say. If we sincerely seek what biblical writers meant to say rather than what we want them to say, we must seek to know the intent of the writers. If we do otherwise, we engage in eisegesis, not exegesis; we speak to the Bible rather than letting it speak to us. Exegesis strives to draw out of the Bible the meaning the writer intended, not to put into the Bible what we want it to say.
When the subject is how to do something, a writer does not intend to deal with who, what, when, where, what kind, how many, or to what extent. Likewise, if he deals with one of the other questions, he does not intend to reflect how. If a matter is not the writer’s intent, is that matter not incidental? If it is incidental, do we have a right to elevate it to the essential? For example, when a writer specifically deals with how to baptize, he is not binding the where, but the how. If he is dealing with who was baptized, the who is essential, but where is incidental.
Likewise, when an author writes with the intent of spelling out what to offer as a sacrifice, not how to offer sacrifices, he excludes all sacrifices not included in his specific instruction. He does not, however, necessarily exclude specific ways of worshiping, because this was not his intent. A writer intending to give instructions about how to offer a sacrifice, not what to offer, excludes every other way except the ones included in the specific guidance given. But he does not exclude specific things to offer, since this was not his intent.
Incidental information may serve as data to corroborate conclusions drawn from statements intended to deal with the same theme, but the incidental does not establish an imperative nor a pattern. Be careful not to treat incidental information as essential and impose a form where God has granted freedom.
17. Interpret and apply every statement of Scripture in a way that harmonizes with the principle of love and mercy. Anyone who fulfils his obligation to love God and his neighbor fulfills God’s law. All of the specific commandments are summed up in the command to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Rom. 13:8-10). In fact the commandment to love comprehends all other commandments. The more specific commandments are designed to aid us in fulfilling the great commandments to love God and our neighbors. Any time observance of the letter of the law hinders us from doing the loving thing, such observance is contrary to God’s will. God intended for us to apply his laws in ways that fulfill the law of love, not in ways that contradict it.
The disciples of Jesus broke the letter of the law by plucking, husking, and eating grain on the Sabbath. When accused of doing what was unlawful, Jesus did not deny the charge. In fact, He referred to other cases in which they broke the letter of the law. Indeed, Jesus even spoke approvingly of these incidents and declared the disciples innocent. He showed that, although these activities violated the letter of the law, they did not violate the merciful intent of God nor the lordship of Jesus. He also showed that to keep the letter of the law and act in a way contrary to love and mercy is wrong. In fact, Jesus declared that such laws were made to serve man’s needs, not to be served by man if such observance of the letter of the law would interfere with acts of mercy (Matt. 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-27; Luke 6:1-5.
The Pharisees were so zealous for the letter of the law that they opposed acts of love and mercy done by Jesus. By breaking laws and approving “unlawful” activity on the part of His disciples, Jesus affirmed that God values human need over the letter of the law. Yet, He values law so highly that He requires death in payment for breaking it (Rom. 6:23). God even gave His Son to die in payment for the breaking of laws (Rom. 3:23-26). But in keeping God’s law, we must not violate the weightier law of love to fulfil the letter of the law (Matt. 23:23).
Indeed, we must observe the law, even to the keeping of the letter of the law, except when such would prevent acts of love and mercy, or when it would cause us to act in an unloving or unmerciful manner or ignore the context of the law.
Jesus kept the commandments as the rule of His life. However, even Jesus acted contrary to the letter of the law when His love and acts of mercy required Him to. Yet, He was without sin (Heb. 4:15). By precept and example, Jesus taught us that the controlling quality of law is how it serves God’s purpose, love and mercy, not the commandment itself (Matt. 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). In fact, He indicated that to allow the letter to so control our use of the law that we neglect love and mercy would be an act of evil itself.
18. Study the Bible with proper motives. The above principles of interpretation dictate that biblical interpreters utilize the following: Christian motives, skilled exegesis, correct principles of hermeneutics, and a submissive attitude.
The Bible student should ask himself the following five questions: (1) Why am I studying the Bible? It is not appropriate for us to select only part of the truth and use it out of its context to prove our beliefs, justify personally favored actions, or condemn others with whom we disagrees. We should seek to learn what is truly the will of God! (2) What does the Bible say? It is obvious that we cannot know what the Bible means until we know what it says. (3) What did the writer of a particular biblical statement intend for his statement to mean to his first readers? We must first know what a statement meant to its recipients, before we can determine how it applies to modern man. (4) What does what the Bible says mean to us? We must not only establish what a biblical statement meant to its first readers in his context; we must determine what it means to us (its significance) in our context. If a statement is taken out of its contexts (e.g., historical, canonical, book, pericope, or immediate context), it will not be properly interpreted. (5) How should what I learn affect my beliefs and behavior? Lessons are never adequately learned until the changes they require are made. (6) How can I share this truth with others? The truth of God is designed to be shared also, not just understood and acted on. But, again, it must only be applied to those in the same or very similar situations.
19. Abide by the law of rationality when studying the Bible. The law of rationality requires that we think logically and draw only such conclusions as are supported by adequate relevant evidence. The law of rationality demands, “Draw only such conclusions as are supported by the evidence.” Paul charged, “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21 ASV). Only rational study is acceptable to God. Rational study is objective and seeks to honor God, but irrational study is subjective and seeks to honor self.
Objective study recognizes that Biblical truth is independent of what we think and how we feel. What we think and how we feel does not change truth. On the other hand, subjective study allows feelings and personal ideas to affect our conclusions more than Biblical evidence.
Rational students let the Bible speak to them, rather than seeking to speak to the Bible. They submit themselves to the Bible and allow it to control their thinking and behavior, rather than seeking to control what the Bible teaches and make it justify their thinking and actions. Irrational people begin their study with conclusions, before searching for evidence, and, consciously or unconsciously, strive to make the Bible say what they want it to say. Such students are guilty of eisegesis; they seek to put their thinking into the Bible. Exegesis requires an inductive search for evidence and conclusions dictated by the evidence; we who practice exegesis seek to draw our thinking from the Bible.
© 2004, Dr. Wm. T. (Bill) Lambert
Professor Emeritus – NT Literature and Interpretation
College of Bible and Religion