Did God Actually Say? (Part 3)
by Dan Leischner, Chairman Elder
This week's post is a previously published article from the May 2019 issue of our former monthly newsletter.
In this third and final installment of this series about the truth of the Bible we will look at the question of interpretation and how can we better understand the correct interpretation of a passage. In the first article we looked at a sample of Bible passages that appear to contradict each other. In the second article we looked at passages that appear to contain errors. However, when we really look into these passages we see that the Bible does not contradict itself, or contain errors, when we consider the original language, culture, and purpose of each Bible passage. Now we will look at a final question about the various interpretations of the Bible.
There are so many different denominations in Christianity and each of them have a different interpretation of the Bible, how can we know if any are correct?
Correctly interpreting God’s Word is the key to understanding what God really meant when His words were written down. Some try to say that there are many interpretations. Actually, however, as one of my seminary professors said, there is only one correct interpretation and many applications.
In his book “Christian Theology,” Millard Erickson states:
The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time that it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.[i]
In order to correctly understand the truth of the Bible, we need to understand what the original writer meant in his original historical context, in his language, and considering the original purpose for which he was writing. As we will see later, the Bible is made up of many different types of writing, and each of them are used for a different purpose.
Original Language and Original Culture
We know that God cannot lie, and the words He told to Moses, the prophets and the other biblical authors were true. When these words were written down by the original writers in their own language, their writings were also true and correctly understood by the original readers. Over time, words can change their meaning, and people in different cultures will understand words and phrases differently. Thus, we must understand the Scriptures as they would have been understood by the original writers and readers in their own language. Some words don’t translate well into other languages (even into English) and thus deep scholarly study of the Bible must include consideration of the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages (and the cultural context) in which each book of the Bible was written. This does not mean that our English texts cannot be relied upon. Quite to the contrary, translators of the Bible use extensive knowledge of the original languages to render the best possible representation in our English language.
Different Literary Styles
Imagine if you were writing an email to a friend because he/she was excited to know about the new business you started. You might tell them about all the new clients that you have and that you had a great first year! Now imagine if you were writing a letter to the IRS because they also wanted to know about this new business that you started (think: audit). Assuming that you are fully truthful in each letter, wouldn’t you use different words, phrases and include different information in each letter? Your friend wants to know what you think about your new business and how you are doing; the IRS wants to know if you have followed the tax rules in reporting your business income. Each letter has a very different purpose and a very different context, thus if someone were to read each letter they may be confused at the differences – it would be easy to think that the letters contradict each other and probably contain untruths or misrepresentations. However, each letter could be 100% factual in the things that they say, even though they use different words when describing the business. words that they wrote. The Holy Spirit will reveal the truth that is already written in God’s Word. This is important to understand: The Holy Spirit is not making new revelations that are outside of or in addition to God’s written Word – He only takes the words given from God through Jesus, and He gives us understanding of those words.
The Bible also employs several different types of literature (or writing styles) which includes Letters or Epistles (like to a friend) as well as Law and Statues (like the IRS tax rules). Different types of biblical literature must be understood according to their genre. Here are some of the different types of biblical literature[ii]:
Epistle/Letter (e.g. Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Timothy)
Genealogical (Genesis 5, Matthew 1, Luke 3)
Historical Narrative (Joshua, Ruth, the four Gospels, and Acts)
Law/Statutory (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy)
Parable (there are a few examples of parables in the Old Testament, but Jesus made extensive use of parables in His teachings)
Poetry (the books of Psalms is a prime example of biblical poetry)
Prophecy (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation)
Proverbial/Wisdom Literature (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes)
In order to have a correct interpretation of a passage, we must come to that passage with an understanding of the purpose of the writing and the type of literature it represents. We cannot interpret poetry in the same way we interpret a genealogy because they were written in different styles and with a different purpose.
Hyperbole or Deliberate Exaggeration
In our English language we sometimes make an extreme statement in order to make a point. Maybe you’ve heard a co-worker say, “I have a million things to do today,” or maybe you have heard the phrase, “I am so hungry that I could eat a horse.” Do we think that the coworker really has 1 million things to get done in one day? Do you actually think that the hungry person can really eat an entire horse? We hear these kinds of statements all the time and we know that the person is using hyperbole to emphasize a point. Jesus also used such a device when he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell”[iii]. Taken literally, it would seem that Jesus was advocating mutilation, but Jews did not believe in mutilating the body. God told Israel not to cut themselves in Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1, and we know that Jesus’ disciples did not take this saying literally, otherwise we would read about all the early Christians who had removed an eye or a hand! We need to interpret this particular statement of Jesus as a literary device to show the dangers of sin; Jesus does not want people to mutilate themselves because of sin, or to be cast into hell, but to repent and be saved – the need for salvation is the point of Jesus’ statement, not mutilation.
Thus, correct interpretation takes place only when we consider the full context of the passage, the historical setting, the purpose of the writing, and the style of the writing in the original language. As stated by Boa and Moody:
“When interpretive disagreement occurs, it is usually because of faulty or inconsistent methods of interpretation (hermeneutics). For instance, some people impose their own preconceived notions upon the pages of Scripture (eisegesis) instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself (exegesis).”[iv]
In this series of articles we have looked at many questions or challenges to the truthfulness of the Bible. We see that the Bible is consistent, does not contain errors, and faithfully represents the Word of God in written form. We know that we must interpret Scripture in light of the original language, culture, and purpose for which it was written. We can also have the assurance that the Holy Sprit guided the original authors into the truth of God’s Word and the teachings of Jesus, and the same Holy Spirit guides us to understand the truth that has been written. This is why Canby Christian Church has the core value of God’s Word which says:
“We value the ministry of the Word of God. We strive to be people of the Book. We teach the Scriptures, read the Scriptures, and live the Scriptures. Furthermore, we believe the Bible points to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the promise in the New.” [v]
[i]Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition(Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1998) pg. 259
[ii]Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, Alex Carmichael undated, https://carm.org/Bible-writing-styles
[iii]Matthew 5:29, English Standard Version, Text Edition, (Good News Publishers, 2001)
[iv]I’m Glad You Asked, Ken Boa and Larry Moody, (Colorado Springs, Victor Books, 1994) pg. 108
[v]Canby Christian Church values, 2019