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by Jacob Ninan
The body of Christians taking pride in the fact that they are evangelical, basing their faith on the inspired Word of God and referring to it as the sole standard (sola scriptura) in all matters concerning doctrine and practice, seem to be getting more confused than ever concerning its interpretation. With easy access to Hebrew and Greek lexicons, concordances, a multiplicity of translations and paraphrases, and lightning speed searches through computers, analysis of the text of the Scriptures and its meaning has never been so easy. But instead of making things clearer and patching up differences among people, confusion still reigns, causing more divisions and quarrels among the people of God. I am not the first one, nor do I expect to be the last, to address this distressing situation, and we can hardly expect anyone to come up with the last word on the subject. But what I would like to do is to look at the issue in the context of contemporary developments and see if we can get some further insight into it.
I am not looking at the battle between evangelical Christians and the liberals who do not give the Bible any status of being of divine origin. But even when it comes to the evangelical position, which respects the divine inspiration of the text, there is still a lot of confusion regarding how we interpret the Scriptures in relation to practical application.
The Word and the Spirit. It is generally agreed (among the evangelicals) that all Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit as the different authors wrote down the thoughts in their own styles. Some hold the view that the Holy Spirit gave the authors the exact words to write down. But it is apparent that the entire Bible does not follow a single literary style that can be attributed to the Holy Spirit, but has different styles belonging to the human authors who came from different backgrounds. The authors were not writing down what was dictated to them by the Spirit but writing down their thoughts as they were inspired by the Spirit. At the same time it must be remembered that an accurate depiction of ideas does require the right choice of words, and therefore we must take it that the words themselves are inspired when it concerns important issues.
Another fact that comes out when we examine the text carefully is that the Holy Spirit seems to have given the authors some margin of freedom to express things in their own natural style sometimes even at the cost of literal exactness. For example, when an author mentions that the whole city came out to meet Jesus (Matt.8:34), surely he did not mean to include every single individual in that city! Such instances cannot be really called 'inaccuracies' because it is just a matter of common usage. These are also insignificant in terms of their practical application to our spiritual life. I hope I am not raising doubts in the hearts of some regarding the inspiration of Scripture. My point is that we must take such factors also into consideration when we try to interpret Scripture if we are to avoid the dangers of literalism – interpreting the word without the Spirit.
I believe also that God has allowed such instances to exist in the Bible to remind us how imperfect our best writers or speakers are, even now. They were written, for the most part, by ordinary people for ordinary people.
The Word without the Spirit. It is clear how much we need the Holy Spirit to reveal God's truths to us in our present situations when we read the inspired Word of God. Someone has said that the Bible was written not for the intellect but for the heart. If we try to analyse and understand the Word using just our natural abilities we are most likely to go astray, however great our IQ is and however much we know Greek and Hebrew. Isn't this our most common mistake these days when it comes to the Bible? With so many volumes of commentaries and other books explaining different viewpoints, and analytical tools that have been sharpened through necessity to do finer exegeses, the Scriptures are being dissected to the most minute level. However we should not forget that the God's truths are to be 'discerned spiritually' and not just understood intellectually with our mind (1Cor.2:14). What I would now like to do is to list down some of the common ways in which we tend to go astray.
1. Taking the text as a legal document. Those who draw up a legal framework under which any activity has to take place take care to anticipate every possible situation that would need to be addressed. Therefore the law runs into several sections and sub-sections. It also happens that after the law is enacted people come up with new situations that have not been addressed by it, and then the law has to be amended further. This was the approach taken when the Law of Moses was given.
Even though the Law of the Old Testament was related mainly to external behaviour and was, in that sense, simple, it still proved to be inadequate even with the clarifications provided by Moses and the others. The reason was that instead of understanding the spirit of the law, people looked only at the literal meaning. Jesus pointed this out to those who questioned Him on the basis of literal interpretations of the text (Mk.12:24). The spirit knows no boundaries, and once we understand the principles behind the law we can interpret it correctly in different situations. But the literal text has finite limitations, especially concerning its scope of meaning.
When we come to the New Testament, we find that it is the principles that are stressed and not so much the details. The Bible itself does not make any claim to containing every detail that people need to know concerning life. It says that God has given to us everything that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet.1:3). This everything includes the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the fellowship of other Christians, and many other things.
Isn't it foolish for us to look only at the written text of the Bible, as though it were a legal document, without seeking to understand what God is saying to us through it? Isn't it much better to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal His truths as we read the Bible, and then apply them to our lives? In other words, if we simply go to the Bible and examine it as we would refer to a book of law, wouldn't we possibly misunderstand or miss to understand God's heart?
An extreme case of wrong application of the text in a legal sense is when people conveniently make use of the silence of the Scriptures (that is, the fact that the Scriptures do not mention certain subjects specifically) to say that therefore such and such things are allowed or they are prohibited! A very convenient ploy! It has become very common to say that such and such things are not sins because the Bible does not name them as such. People go to the extent of quoting the minute variations in the Hebrew and Greek words to prove that the Bible does not refer to certain sins. Just look at the arguments being put up in favour of homosexuals. There are, on the other hand, those who say that since the Bible does not expressly permit the use of musical instruments in the church, they are to be prohibited.
2. Taking the text as a scientific document. When a book on chemistry says that a water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, we can interpret that if a molecule has two atoms of oxygen or only one atom of hydrogen in it, it cannot be water. In mathematics, if A + B = C, we can also say that A = C - B. Science is precise (or at least is meant to be)! But the words of Scripture cannot be interpreted this way. The reasons are several.
Spiritual words do not have precise meanings. For example, can we define the meaning of humility precisely, so that we can know definitely when we are humble and when we are not? God says that He gives grace to the humble (1Pet.5:5). Will we ever be able to say that we have humbled ourselves and we deserve to get grace? Can we explain grace in precise terms? Or faith? Secondly, connections between different aspects of the spiritual life, such as grace and humility, have many dimensions to them which are not all mentioned together in every place. For example, if we understand grace (generally speaking) to mean God's favour upon our lives and also understand that God gives grace to the humble, can we conclude that the calamities that came upon Job were because he was proud?
Many statements in the Bible give us general principles and cannot be interpreted as if they were scientific statements. For example, when it says that if we train up a child in the way he should go he will not depart from it when he grows old (Prov.22:6), what it means to say is just that parents should bring up their children in a proper way if they want them to grow up into godly men and women. It does not say in precise terms what it involves in bringing up children. We must also remember that there are many different factors that go into the way children grow up, including those that are outside the control of their parents. Can parents quote this verse at any time as though they have done their part and now God has to do His? Or do parents have to necessarily condemn themselves if their children go astray? This verse mentions nothing explicitly about parents having to constantly cry out to God for His grace over their children. But this is something that the parents would understand when they look to the Lord beyond the words themselves.
3. Taking the Word as a magic password. The present time is one where people are looking for instant solutions to their problems, instant spiritual growth, etc. Therefore the “Name it and claim it” approach has a lot of appeal to people. They are taught to take hold of different promises of God as if they were mantras which they can utter by which they can receive their heart's desires from God. This is certainly a distortion of God's Word. There are many promises of God in the Bible that are there for us to take hold of. There is nothing wrong with that per se. The problem comes when we ignore the contexts in which the promises are given, the type of people for whom they are meant, the conditions we have to fulfil in order to receive those promises, etc. The problem with this type of thinking which holds out unrealistic hopes is that it may result in tragic disappointments and finally even loss of faith.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household" (Ac.16:31). Is this something we can claim in the name of Jesus as something that has to automatically happen in our family because we are saved? On the other hand, if we think of it as a possibility that our family members can also be saved, will it not lead to much prayer on our part and a seeking for power and wisdom to be good witnesses to them? In such a case, this verse will give us strength for our hope so that we can persevere till we see the result.
“By His stripes we are healed” (Isa.53.5). Can we take hold of this verse and insist with God that we should be healed, or proclaim to people that they will be healed? Does this verse claim to say that every sickness we will have will be healed? Isn't it only saying that Jesus through His death has made it possible for us to be healed? We can assume that this healing includes both spiritual and physical healing. But has anyone seen anyone who has been fully sanctified in every way or physically healed every time? The fact is that God in His sovereign wisdom sometimes heals miraculously through His direct intervention, sometimes heals miraculously in answer to prayer, sometimes heals through medical treatment and sometimes does not heal at all.
Believe me, I am not trying to upset anyone's simple faith. I know God gives some people the gifts of faith and miracles. Some get such gifts for some specific occasions. In such cases miracles do happen. But I am concerned about the large number of others who try to imitate such people by quoting the verses. Our claiming healing from God might look like faith. If He has given us specific faith in our heart for that, then it is fine. But claiming it like a magic password can end up in serious disappointment and confusion. Can't we take the approach that Jesus took, in saying that we know that the Father is able to heal us (or so-and-so), praying for immediate healing, leaving the decision to Him, and praying that in any case His name will be glorified? (Jn.11:41,42; Matt.26:39; Jn.12:27,28).
4. Confusing history and teaching. A large part of the Bible contains historical narrations of things that happened and things that people did. It is very honest about the mistakes of its heroes, and reports some of the foolish things godly people said or did. It would be obviously naive to think that just because something is given in the Bible we should do just as it is written.
The early church started with breaking bread every day, going from house to house (Ac.2:46). The Bible says later on that Paul and some others gathered together to break bread on the first day of the week (Ac.20:7). It does not even say that Christians everywhere used to break bread on the first day of the week, or that they broke bread only on the first day of the week. This is a historical report and not a teaching about when and how often we should meet to break bread. The teaching on the subject only says that whenever we break bread together we should do it in remembrance of Jesus (1Cor.11:25).
On the other hand, some people take teaching to apply only to 'those' people or 'those' times. Some people think that the Sermon on the Mount applies only to Israel, and others think that many of Paul's teachings were only for those days or people. Some people accept only the words of Jesus and reject all the epistles. Instead of trying to apply rigid rules that block our vision, why can't we have a larger perspective and a broader mind to allow the Holy Spirit to teach us everything?
5. Not distinguishing between the old and the new testaments. It was because the old testament (covenant) was faulty that God gave that up and established a new one and made the old one obsolete (Heb.8:7,8,13). We make a big mistake if we don't realise this, and treat them on equal footing or fail to discard what God has made obsolete. Study of the differences between the two covenants can be the subject of a book in itself. But for the present it is sufficient if we understand that there are differences between the two, and that we need to take that into consideration while trying to interpret them.
The new covenant is the culmination or perfection of the old covenant where things were merely a shadow of things which would come in the new covenant. This means that mere external forms and rituals have to give way to spiritual realities. Restrictions on clean and unclean foods, and the practices of Sabbath and tithing are some of the major examples of old testament practices that have given way to new covenant inner realities and actions that stem from them.
6. Relinquishing the use of commonsense. This is to fanatically hold on to the words of the Bible to the extent of being ridiculous. Jesus overcame the temptation to test God by jumping down from the pinnacle of the temple, but some of us do not seem to learn from that. We have people totally avoiding medicine, blaming every calamity (that befalls others) on sin, proclaiming material prosperity for all believers, expecting an instant fulfilment of all promises and answers to all prayers, thinking that they are trusting in God for income while they are not making any attempt to work, not saving or planning for the future and thinking that they are casting all care upon God. And they base all such foolhardy ways on the Word of God! People imagine they have remarkable faith, or they want to show others that they have, and they believe that they are putting their trust in the Lord and not leaning on their own understanding! By stretching parts of the truth beyond their limits and by imagining themselves to be special people of faith, they finally bring dishonour to the name of the Lord. When I say 'they' do I mean that 'we' are in no danger from such mistakes? Wanting to be someone special or to do something extraordinary can drive us crazy. When the devil told Jesus to jump off from the temple wasn't that the human craving which the devil was trying to play up on?
Many think that reason is the enemy of faith, and refuse to think things through. Of course there is truth in that statement. But the 'reason', which is referred to there, is the kind which does not trust in God's Word but which is based on our natural senses. But the God-given ability to reason, when it is made subject to the revealed Word of God and the direction of the Holy Spirit, can protect us from taking many wrong steps.
7. Mixing up with psychological gimmicks. There is a great upsurge in the world on self-improvement techniques, and people are constantly on the lookout for new techniques that can solve their problems. Some Christians adopt such techniques to Christian living, not realising that spiritual things have to be discerned spiritually (1Cor.2:14), and that spiritual blessings have to be received by grace through faith and not through manipulations (Rom.4:16). The technique of autosuggestion, by which one repeats some 'truth' to oneself hoping that by doing so it will come to pass, is mistaken for the confession of faith. The essential difference between the two, of course, is that in the case of confessing one's faith, one is actually stating what one already believes, and in autosuggestion the attempt is to make oneself believe something through repetitious statements.
The new age beliefs that combine 'essential human goodness' and one's own ability to change oneself promote certain types of positive thinking and meditations, and when Christians mix these along with promises from the Bible they think they have discovered new ways of changing their own lives (which Jesus and the apostles apparently did not know)! This breeds a new type of Christian preachers who employ the same charismatic techniques that self-improvement gurus adopt, and many people are swayed by them.
It is one thing to point out that our tongue is like a rudder in a ship which changes the course of the ship, and another thing to take off from there to conclude that by saying the right words we can be the masters of our destiny! Of course, this type of error succeeds because it looks very much like the truth. It is true that our good words can take us in a good direction and our bad words in a wrong direction. But to give an impression that our words have some kind of power to shape our future is getting away from the truth. It also goes away from the analogy of the rudder because the power is not in the rudder but in the engine which is quite something else!
There is also much hype nowadays about 'inner healing.' It is true that even among believers there is sometimes need for the healing of the mind and emotions to go deep. There may be sins that have been covered up that need to be confessed and set right. There may be need to take a stronger hold of God's unconditional forgiveness and acceptance. But aren't these to happen when we receive God's Word through faith, rather than by a tedious process of trying to remember everything that has happened from childhood and narrating them to a counsellor? I am not denying the fact that sometimes counsellors would need to look into the past experiences of people in order to help them. But what is wrong is in making a method or doctrine of having to confess every single sin of the past in order to receive cleansing.
8. Majoring on proof texts. This is a very common error among believers, especially those who are used to receiving all their understanding of Scripture from pastors or teachers second-hand, or those who are confined to listening to (or reading) the teachings of only their own denominations or groups. The problem in such cases is that we hear the “It is written” without having heard the “It is also written”. The balance of truth is in holding together all that is written about a subject in the Bible, even if some of the verses seem to be opposing each other, and not just some pet verse.
We are aware of the 'grace versus works' battle where some people even advocate throwing out the Letter of James. Those who proclaim 'total healing and no sickness', '(material) prosperity for all believers', 'guaranteed answers to all prayers', etc., have failed to take note of the whole witness of the Word, apart from not recognising practical realities.
9. Applying the Word to the others. This is a problem relating to the application of the Word which we read or hear. We are tempted to think, especially when the Word tells us to do something, that it doesn't apply to us but to some others. On the other hand, we take all the promises for ourselves, even those that are not meant for us! This problem is an occupational hazard for us preachers and writers who, when we read the Word, are always finding something to speak or write about - for the others!
God wants us to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matt.4:4). And, it is only those want to do God's will who can understand it (Jn.7:17). When Jesus said that to everyone who had, more would be given, didn't He mean that everyone who heard His words and did according to them would be able to hear and do more? On the other hand, those who heard and did not do accordingly stand in danger of having taken away from them even what they have already heard (Matt.13:12). We preachers and writers have to beware in this regard, that if we are not serious about being doers of God's Word ourselves, our words may become without power for the others.
The Word with the Spirit and power. The Word of God is powerful enough to break strongholds, sharp enough to penetrate deep inside and separate the thoughts and intentions of our heart, and capable of comforting, encouraging, strengthening and equipping us to do all the will of God. Therefore let us take hold if it in dependence on the Holy Spirit. Let us seek to constantly study it, in detail and as a whole, seeking to obey whatever the Lord tells us through it. Let us keep an open mind and be willing to change our views and ways when we understand things better. Then we can expect to be protected from going astray to the right or to the left, and to become useful to the Lord.
-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, June 2006
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