All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If Scripture is profitable for teaching, then we are expected to know and understand Scripture and it can teach us things we didn’t know. If Scripture is profitable for reproof and correction, then we have to be able to determine what it means such that we have a objective standard by we can decide if one or both of us is wrong.
How can we determine what a passage of Scripture means?
- God inspires the original author’s understanding of truth.
- The original authors write to an original audience using normal human language, expecting their audience to understand them.
- Thousands of copies were made of the original texts. In the few cases where we see scribal errors, there are ways to uncover them.
- Our goal is to uncover the what the original author meant to say: the author’s God-inspired understanding.
- To do that we have to work through textual variants, context, grammar and word usage, as well as the culture and background and history that the author and audience shared at the time the text was written.
- Finally we have to apply that understanding to today (the process of deriving doctrine).
- The meaning of the text is based the authority of the interpreter (not the text alone).
- Understanding the text requires normal human communication PLUS something mystical, magical or numerical system.
- Interpreting the text “literally” ignoring metaphor, idioms, and the flexibility of language.
- Not recognizing the difference between the meaning of a text and the significance of the text.
- Ignoring historical background, culture and cultural idioms that informed the original author and readers.
- Good Bible study methodology (particularly seeking the author’s original intent) gives us an objective way to seek truth. (For example, see The 5 C’s of Bible Study)
- What is the role of the Holy Spirit in Bible Study? He opens our eyes to the truth.
- Seeking the truth is a virtue today. Finding truth is considered offensive.
- Rather than approaching the passage with what we want it to mean, we have to learn to let the passage teach us what it means.
- The meaning of a passage is what the original author intended it to mean.
- The basic message of the Bible (the gospel) is clear and repeated often through Scripture.
- Let clear passages interpret the unclear passages.
- Even when reading for devotional purposes, read for understanding.
For further study: Basics of Bible Interpretation, by Bob Smith
This talk was originally given at the Center for Christian Study in the late 1990s.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.