(Find part 1 at: http://www.marketfaith.org/what%E2%80%99s-so-special-about-the-bible-part-1-what-is-the-purpose-of-the-bible)
Ever thought about what book has had the greatest impact on the world? There are a lot of possibilities: The Quran; The Origin of Species; Shakespeare’s dramas; The Communist Manifesto; The Bhagavad Gita; etc. In the Western world the most significant book of all time is certainly the Bible. It is also true that many people who read and study the Bible do not regard it with any special degree of inspiration beyond that of any piece of ancient literature.
As Christians, we boldly state, however, that the Bible is the Word of God. In the last installment we looked at why we regard the Bible as a special revelation of God. We looked at the two forms of revelation that He has given to mankind. The first type is “general revelation” in which God shows Himself to exist through nature, life, and morality. It is available to all humanity. The other, more advanced sort, is “special revelation.” Through this revelation God gives us greater information about His nature and how we can be saved through His acts in history, His written Word, and ultimately through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
In this installment we examine the principles necessary for making the Bible meaningful for our lives today. The Bible is an ancient book, but for believers its texts are as relevant today as they were when written.
First, let’s look at a few basic facts about the Bible. The Protestant Bible consists of 66 books. 39 of the books were written by pre-Christian Hebrew prophets and other inspired persons. We call that the Old Testament. The rest of the Bible was written in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus by His disciples and others. We call these 27 books and letters the New Testament. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches include other pre-Christian books in their versions called the Apocrypha. These were rejected by Jewish scholars and were never included in the Hebrew Bible. Protestants and evangelicals also do not regard them as inspired.
The Bible was written over the course of about 1500 years by about 40 different writers. The shortest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 117 which has only two verses:
Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD! (NASB)
The longest chapter is Psalm 119 which is one of the most intriguing sections of the Psalms. It was written as a Hebrew acrostic. It is divided into 22 subchapters each consisting of eight verses. Each verse of every subchapter begins with the same Hebrew letter. The subchapters are placed in Hebrew alphabetical order. So, verses one through eight all begin with the Hebrew letter aleph. Verses nine through sixteen all begin with beth, and so on. Another interesting fact about this chapter is that every verse extolls the value of some aspect of God’s word and includes a term that refers to His law, precepts, commandments, statutes, etc. For example verses nine through eleven read:
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By keeping it according to Your word.
With all my heart I have sought You;
Do not let me wander from Your commandments.
Your word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against You. (NASB-italics added)
A. Psalm 119:9, 1 Kings 2:4; 8:25, 2 Chron. 6:16
B. Psalm 119:10, 2 Chr 15:15; Ps 119:2, 145
C. Psalm 119:10, Ps 119:21, 118
D. Psalm 119:11, Ps 37:31; 40:8; Luke 2:19, 51
The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35 which simply says, “Jesus wept.” Some argue, however, that 1 Thessalonians 5:16 deserves that title in the original Greek: “Rejoice always.”
In any case, our concern here is to discover how the Bible is relevant to us today. People sometimes say, “How can a book that is more than 2,000 years old have any real meaning for the 21st Century?” There are several essentially key principles necessary for the Scriptures to be relevant to our lives today. They involve what may be called the “Application Bridge.” In other words, how do we bridge the two millennia gap between what was written in the Bible at that time and place and making application of it for our present time and place?
The answer is that the Bible has meaning for today only if we study & interpret it conscientiously and accurately. As Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15 NASB
The KJV translates that last phrase prosaically as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Paul meant that as a church leader and teacher, Timothy needed to carefully study and correctly interpret the Scriptures (in his case, the Hebrew Scriptures). In other words, he, and we, need to understand as accurately as possible just what the writers of the various books (including the New Testament) meant when they wrote them. This is what theologians call hermeneutics.
Properly interpreting the Bible requires careful attention to several key principles of what theologians call “exegesis.” That term literally means “to draw out from” the text the writer’s original intentions and meanings. The opposite of that is “eisegesis” wherein the reader “reads into” the text his own preconceived ideas. Thankfully in our day, we are blessed to have a wealth of resources to aid us in that quest.
So, here are a few of the basic principles of sound biblical interpretation.
1. We must interpret the Bible based on the precise meanings of the words used in both the Greek and Hebrew texts.
This method is called the Literal Principle of biblical interpretation. In other words we want to interpret the text in exactly the way the author intended for it to be understood when he wrote it.
Now obviously, few of us have the ability to read Greek and Hebrew. I took two years of Greek and one year of Hebrew in seminary, but I would not even try to read the Bible directly from those languages. That is why it is imperative that we use reliable translations. Many people are content to use only the King James Version (KJV). Some are dogmatic about it. The KJV is one of the greatest pieces of literature in the English language, but we must look at it honestly. It contains numerous examples of archaic English and is not based on the best ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts which have been discovered since it was first published in 1611.
Therefore, the serious biblical interpreter should use translations that are current in both their language usage and textual reliability. Several excellent modern English translations include The New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New International Version (NIV), The New King James Version, and a recently completed version called the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
We must also be careful not inadvertently to get drawn into using versions that lack integrity. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use only the translation produced by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society: The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. They claim it is the most accurate modern translation. However, credible Bible scholars universally agree that is one of the most biased and distorted translations ever made.
2. We must also interpret the Bible based on each book’s historical setting and the time it was written in the progress of God’s revelation.
Muslims believe the Quran was literally dictated to Muhammad by angels over a period of several decades. Thus, they say, historical context is of no concern.
The Bible, however, did not just fall from the sky complete. As we said, it was written over many centuries by numerous inspired authors. That being said, we must understand what was happening at the time and place where, and to whom, the author was writing to comprehend adequately the meaning of his work. We should utilize the many excellent resources available in our day to help accomplish this goal. Bible commentaries, dictionaries, concordances, handbooks, and atlases, written by competent evangelical scholars, are essential tools for the modern Bible interpreter.
3. We must interpret the Bible taking into consideration the particular book’s type of literature.
Some books in Scripture are historical records, some are poems, some are wise sayings, some are letters, some are apocalyptic writings, and so on. The kind of literature it is will impact how it should be understood. For instance, a poetic book, like the Psalms, cannot properly be read in the same way as an epistle like Romans.
Likewise, we would not normally read a historical book like Acts in the same way we would read an apocalyptic book like Revelation. In one case it may be read with strict literalism. In other cases, where the milieu requires it, it may be read symbolically or metaphorically. For instance, in John 15:5 Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches…” (NASB). Obviously Jesus was not stating that he or His listeners were literally plants on a vine. Rather He was making a metaphorical comparison of their dependence on Him for their lives.
So, while we always affirm the Literal Principle when studying Scripture, we cannot ignore this important factor. The sort of literature a book is will determine how we understand what the writer’s purpose and intended meaning was when he wrote it.
4. We must interpret the Bible with consideration for the context of any passage.
One of the favorite games cultists and false teachers like to play is quoting Bible passages to buttress whatever preconceived idea they may hold. For example, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sometimes quote Ephesians 2:20 to prove that the true church must have a foundation of prophets and apostles. However, when read in its context, it is clear Paul was talking about the prophets and apostles who were the founders of Christianity, not that every generation was required to have them also as their church teaches.
So we contend that proper biblical interpretation requires that we consider any verse or passage in its context. This actually involves two levels of context. First is the general context of the passage in the book where it is located. Every book in the Bible has some overarching purpose and it is necessary to understand the writer’s ultimate theme to know how any one verse or passage fits in.
Second, it involves placing the passage in the specific context of the chapter and other verses surrounding it. Any verse jerked from its context can be used as a proof-text for whatever the interpreter wants it to say, even if it is the exact opposite of what the author meant.
Once again this is where Bible study resources can be helpful. Studying the background and surrounding texts from a reputable source will help assure the accuracy of understanding.
5. We must interpret the Bible relying on the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds to understand it.
As Christians we believe the biblical writers were divinely inspired supernaturally by the Holy Spirit to write the words that God intended to put in the Scriptures.
14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.(2 Timothy 3: 14-17 – NASB)
That being said, we also believe that the same Holy Spirit indwelt us when we accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Thus, we have access to a supernatural resource to guide us in reading and interpreting His Word. Jesus Himself promised that the “Helper,” the Holy Spirit, would lead us into the truth (John 14-17).
In I Corinthians 2:14-16 the Apostle Paul indicated that the natural minded person… “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” However, he then states that… “the spiritual minded person appraises all things.”
Does the Bible have any meaning for us today? We would say emphatically, “YES!” It is the Word of God and is as relevant today as it was when it was written. There is an old saying, “I believe the Bible means what it says, and says what it means.” That is a good statement, but in order for us to make sound application for our lives, we must first understand as precisely as possible just what the Scriptures actually say and what they really mean. That’s the job of the biblical interpreter. If you are a pastor, Bible teacher, Christian educator, or even a parent, you must take the time and effort to accurately interpret and apply the Bible to the lives of your students and children.
© 2012 Tal Davis