by Layton Talbert
This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Interpreting the Bible: A Tale of Two Questions
Accurate Bible interpretation starts with asking two questions— and asking them in the right order.
What did it mean for them [the original recipients]?
This is always the first question. This is where exegesis comes in. Exegesis has reference, literally, to drawing or pulling out of a text the meaning inherent in that text within its context. This practice requires that the diligent Bible student or Bible reader pay attention to the following areas.
All communication occurs in some kind of context. The context is what gives any text meaning, and distinctive contexts give a communication distinctive meanings. A writer (Biblical or otherwise) expects the reader to understand any part of the communication in light of the whole context. When we isolate a phrase or verse from its context, the number of possible interpretations (and consequently, applications) increases. But we don’t want to increase the number of interpretations. We want to reduce the possibilities, by paying attention to the context, in order to discern the author’s original intent.
For instance, a word may have several different meanings. Insert that word into a sentence and the number of possible meanings decreases. Place that sentence in a paragraph and the number of possible meanings for that word decreases still further. The same holds true for a sentence. By itself, a sentence could be ambiguous or seem to imply a particular meaning; but placed in the context of a paragraph, the ambiguity is reduced, and placed in the context of a document, it is reduced even further.
“Just as a stone thrown into a pond causes ripples to move away from the center with increasing area, so must the context-sensitive interpreter move away from the text to its immediate context, to its book context, to its context in the particular Testament, and finally to its context in the whole of Scripture” (Michael Barrett, Beginning at Moses, 251-252).
God gave His revelation in a certain (ancient and oriental) historical context which necessarily shaped many of its topics and idioms, and even sometimes its literary structure. If we wish to understand accurately what is meant, we must first understand clearly what was meant. To do that, we must take the time and make the effort to understand something about that historical context. This has to do with considerations of the history, culture, archaeology, authorship, date, purpose, and circumstances behind any given passage or book. A careful investigation of the historical context can dramatically affect—and correct—our interpretation and, therefore, our application of a passage.
God gave His revelation in the then-current human languages— Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—so that man could understand it. Linguistic context has to do with the study of these languages and their vocabulary, grammar, figures of speech, and literary devices. This is the area in which the average layman is most restricted in his study of the Bible, but a number of helps are available.
God’s revelation to man is essentially and primarily selfrevelation. He is the center. He is the focal point. He is the primary subject. Because the Bible is God’s Word, it cannot be self-contradictory; it is totally unified in its overall message as well as its individual revelations and communications. Its revelation is progressive (that is, the level of revelatory detail increases throughout the Bible), but not contradictory.
What does it mean for us?
This is always the secondary question. This is where exposition comes in. Exposition has reference, literally, to positing a truth directly out of the text. This involves discerning the timeless, universal principles communicated through the time-bound, localized immediate context of the original writing.
A Scripture passage addresses a specific historical situation, but in so doing it provides a basis for addressing other situations. When we face “new” situations that are not directly addressed in Scripture, we seek to discern those underlying, timeless principles to guide our actions and decisions. “All Scripture . . . is profitable” for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction for all men of all ages. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the farther our applications wander from the original intent apparent in the context, the less certainty and authority they carry.
Teaching the Bible: Asking the Right Question
What is the difference between an invention and a discovery? Invention is creating (from existing materials) something that didn’t exist before, at least in that form. Discovery is finding something that has been there all along. These words describe two very different approaches to how we handle, teach, and preach God’s Word. These approaches can be summarized, again, in the form of two questions.
What Can I Say About This Text?
This is, perhaps, the most natural question that pops up when we have occasion to preach, teach, or simply give a devotional. This is the approach of invention or fabrication. The focus is on me, what I can think up, what I can figure out to say about God’s Word. It often produces an artificial or manufactured authority—“this is true because I’m saying it about God’s Word.” This is exactly the wrong question to ask as we approach a passage of Scripture.
What Does This Text Say?
This is the harder, more demanding question to ask ourselves when we are asked to handle God’s Word on any level. This is the approach of discovery or exposition. The focus is on God, what He has said, what words He has chosen, and how He has chosen to phrase it. It produces a natural authority that arises from the text itself and who said it—“this is true because this is what God says.” This is the only right question to ask as we approach a passage of Scripture.
This approach is what differentiates exegesis from eisegesis. Exegesis, you remember, is drawing out of a passage the meaning that is inherent in the text within its context. Eisegesis, its opposite, is dragging (reading) into a passage of Scripture a meaning that is actually outside its context and, therefore, foreign to its intended meaning. The authority of God’s Word resides in the text as understood in its context, and in an interpretation of the text that stands firmly on accurate exegesis. The following principles are applicable to our handling God’s Word because they are applicable to our accurate and appropriate handling of any kind of communication.
Be careful not to read theological presuppositions into a passage. The text should shape our theology, not vice versa. If the clear meaning of a text does not square with our theology, guess which needs to be adjusted?
Be careful not to assume an “obvious” or traditional interpretation— especially one based on the phraseology of a single, particular translation—without thorough investigation. The January-February 2000 column listed several examples of this kind of mistake.
Be careful of an interpretation that “no one else has ever thought of.” There may be a good reason for that! “Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride . . . a false understanding of spirituality . . . or vested interests” (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 14). Novelty may be a virtue in the creative arts, but not in theology or hermeneutics.
When and Why We Differ
If God gave the Bible to reveal Himself clearly to man, why are there so many interpretational problems and differences among God’s people? And if the principles of interpretation are essentially self-evident and universal, why are there so many different, often equally viable, interpretations of the same passage? Why doesn’t everything in Scripture fit together with ease, without question, without paradoxes—or, if there is a difficulty or paradox, why can’t there also be an inspired explanation?
God has chosen to test our faith by leaving certain ambiguities and difficulties of interpretation unresolved. Several factors contribute to our differences of opinion.
Our theological starting point inevitably influences our interpretation. Ideally, exegesis of the text should dictate one’s theology, not vice versa. But once you have settled your theological framework, even on textual grounds, you will invariably come across texts that seem to contradict the theology you have already established. It is easier to adjust the interpretation of an isolated verse or passage that to restructure the whole framework. This is not an excuse; merely an explanation.
Differing Degrees of Giftedness
Different people bring to the task of interpretation different levels of ability. But remember, giftedness itself is not a guarantee of accuracy. A gifted theologian or commentator or preacher is just as prone to human flaws as a less gifted one, or may be swayed by a vested interest or a theological system. Differing Perceptions of Authorial or Literary Intent Different people also bring to the task of interpretation different views of a sacred writer’s intent or point of emphasis.
Presence of Real Ambiguity
Frankly, there are a number of passages that are truly obscure—whether because of our difficulty in translating the language (Hebrew poetry, for example, is often notoriously difficult), or in understanding the ancient cultural/historical context behind a passage, or in simply deciding a grammatically ambiguous phrase which could have more than one viable possibility. The last point raises one final question: why are there so many seeming ambiguities in the Bible?
Why God Put Ambiguities in the Bible:
- To force us to search the Scriptures
- To help us personalize truth because we have to search it out
- To prompt our meditation on and preoccupy our minds with God’s words
- To measure our interest in and love for God’s words
- To provide reward for those who make the effort to search out God’s words
- To test and cultivate our maturity, charity, and unity when we disagree
Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC
- I am indebted to Dr. Mark Minnick for the lists of reasons for our differences and reasons for ambiguities in the Bible. [↩]