SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES


Man is notoriously a creature of extremes. This is so in many areas of life, but particularly so in the realm of religion. For some, religion is merely some intellectual notions; for others, religion calls for the annihilation of all who do not believe as they do. Now, many professing Christians will label us pejoratively as extreme because we hold to some principles and practices of the Reformation and the Early Church. We would dispute that insinuation. But at the same time we cannot deny that we are, like everyone else, prone to extremism.


Amazingly, one area in which extremism is clearly evident among Bible-believing Christians is in the arena of Bible interpretation.


Extreme Positions


On the one hand, some claim that the Bible is so simple for Christians that there is no need for anyone to explain the meaning to us. We have the Holy Spirit to instruct us, they say. Point out to them that there are parts of Scripture that are not so clear, and their response would be that they must simply be read prayerfully and received by faith, for we are not called to understand but to receive by faith. Neither is there a need to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses, for the human mind is simply too limited to understand God’s Word.


On the other hand, perhaps for the greater majority, the language of Scripture is so abstruse and ambiguous that it is almost impossible for laypersons to plumb its deep meanings without entertaining heresy. Therefore the layperson must not attempt to read and interpret the Scripture. The Bible must be interpreted by the clergy. This sell-out to Romanism is unfortunately also evident among many fundamental churches, where what the pastor says is taken as final and authoritative even when the pastor has gone beyond the Scriptures or even contradicted Scripture. Sadly, there are also among Reformed churches those who fall into the extremism by refusing even attempts to examine the scriptural bases of their Confession, their high regard for their Confession notwithstanding. The fact is that while most Protestants believe in the perspicuity of the Scriptures, many are too complacent and indolent to study the Scriptures for ourselves.


Biblical Balance


What is the biblical balance? I believe it is this: In the first place, while God has indeed given us the Holy Spirit to illumine our minds (1 Jn 2:20, 27), He has also appointed “pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry” (Eph 4:11; cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). Are we to say that these are superfluous, or that these are only for “unbelieving saints”? The fact is that God usually works through means for the salvation or sanctification of His saints, and these means include pastors and elders who will be held accountable by the Lord for the spiritual well-being of those appointed to their charge (Heb 13:17). To despise the institution of the church and the rule and instruction of the appointed officers is to dishonour Christ.


In the second place, though we must not despise the lawfully appointed teachers of the church, and must receive their teachings with all readiness of mind, yet we must recognise that they are fallible men, and so it is necessary for us to search the Scriptures to see if what is taught is consistent with the written Word of God (Acts 17:11); and to “prove all things; [and to] hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes 5:21).


In the third place, while the Bible contains “some things hard to be understood” (2 Pet 3:16), it does not follow that we should shut our understanding whenever we read the Scripture. The Lord Jesus especially enjoins understanding when we read or hear the Scriptures. He told His disciples concerning the prophecy of Daniel: “Whoso readeth, let him understand” (Mt 24:15); and He challenged the multitude to “Hear, and understand” (Mt 15:10). In His Parable of the Sower and the Soil, the good soil is contrasted with the way side, as those who understand the Word (cf. Mt 13:19, 23).


In the fourth place, if “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), then it follows that we should read and seek to understand even those parts of Scriptures which are not taught by our pastors or interpreted by our Confessions.


In the fifth place, without efforts to study the Scriptures and to reconcile seeming contradictions in the Scripture, the Christian will be forced into an illogical and irrational fideism and left without any reasonable defence against the opponents of Christ (cf. 1 Pet 3:15). Moreover, if two propositions are truly contradictory, then one of them must be false, and so anyone who holds to both propositions without attempting to reconcile them may greatly dishonour God by believing what is false about Him. Consider: Does God tempt us to sin (cf. Gen 22:1–2; Jas 1:13)? Did Paul make a mistake that God is not far from everyone, even the heathen (Acts 17:27; cf. Prov 15:29)? Did the Lord Jesus contradict Himself when He insists: “Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true” (Jn 8:14; cf. Jn 5:31)? Will a Christian truly persevere in the faith (cf. Jn 10:27–29; Acts 8:13, 18–22; Heb 6:4–6)? Was Christ denying His deity when He says: “my Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28; cf. Jn 10:30)? Was He doing the same when He told the rich young man: “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God” (Mt 19:17)?


The biblical balance, in other words, is that the Christian must not only rely on the institutional means appointed by the Lord for his growth in grace, he must also read and study the Scripture on his own. He must do so, firstly that he may be able to see if what he has been taught is indeed according to the written Word of God; and secondly, that he may fill up what may be lacking through the teaching ministry of the church. To do so, he should read through the Scriptures prayerfully and systematically and with understanding. He must not read the Bible cursorily or with a superstitious notion that so long as he reads, even if he does not understand anything or retain anything in memory, that he would grow in grace. God has given us a “sound mind” (2 Tim 1:7). We are to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind, that [we] may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom 12:2). The mind is the citadel of the soul. Neglecting to use the mind in our reading of the Scripture is to do violence to our soul, and to allow it to be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (cf. Eph 4:14).


How should we read and study the Scripture? Let me propose three simple steps, namely: (1) Observation; (2) Interpretation, and (3) Application. Each of these steps should, of course, be taken prayerfully with a reliance on the illuminating help of the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:26; 16:13–15), for “the things of the Spirit of God… are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14; cf. v. 11).


Observation


This is a preliminary step of Bible Study and more serious Bible reading. What it requires is simply that we read with a prayerful heart and eyes open to what is being conveyed to us in a particular passage. I believe most of us would do some degree of observation whenever we read the Scripture with an alert mind (rather than in a state of semi-comatose, as might be attempted by one with a superstitious view of Bible reading). The trouble is that many of us who are young believers do not know what to look for, while many of us who are more mature believers often take for granted what we are reading so that we often read into the text what is not there (e.g., is Modecai Esther’s uncle? Did Paul say that when the fullness of the Gentiles come into the church, then all Israel shall be saved?)


Such being the case, allow me to give a list that those of us who are newer to Scripture reading may benefit and those of us who are more mature may use it to remind ourselves of what we should be looking out for.


Firstly, we should look at the context of the passage. What is the theme or purpose of the book? What is the immediate context dealing with? Secondly, observe the paragraph divisions and sentence structures. Look out for important connectives, such as butiffortherefore, etc. Thirdly, determine what the literary genre of the passage is. Parables must not be read simply as narratives or epistles, etc. Fourthly, look for verbs and observe their tenses; for pronouns and resolve them; and for adverbs and adjectives, and see how they qualify the verbs and nouns. Fifthly, observe repetitions, progression of ideas, and arguments. Sixthly, take notice of contrasts, comparisons and illustrations. Seventhly, mark out advice, commands, promises and warnings.


What do we do with what we have observed? Well, they may form an accurate basis for the next step of interpretation. But experience shows us that if we are diligent and careful in observing the text at this stage, the meaning of the passage will often be very clear.


Interpretation


Interpreting the Scripture is simply drawing out the meaning from a passage in Scripture. It is at this point that many of us manifest slothfulness by giving in to the temptation to consult commentaries and Study Bibles before we even think and meditate on what we have read. But I have no doubt that those who prayerfully and diligently examine what they have read to draw out its meaning and lessons will benefit more and remember more of the Word. We should therefore, as far as possible, consult the commentaries to see if there is concurrence with our findings only after we have done some interpretation ourselves. Now, of course most commentators have the advantage of knowing the original languages of the Scripture and so may be able to see things we do not see in English. But I believe that even without a knowledge of the original languages we can be fairly good exegetes with a good translation of the Bible, such as the Authorised Version.


Although the Bible cannot be equated with any secular literature, it is nevertheless true that anyone who is able to read and understand a book or even the newspaper should be able to interpret the Scripture to some degree. Many an unbelieving scholar has found delight in discovering gems from the Scripture, only to fuel their pride and increase their condemnation. Without the Spirit of Christ, one may still interpret somewhat, though the exercise will be mechanical and intellectual rather than heartfelt and spiritual. But the point is that there is no special sequence of steps to follow when interpreting Scripture, in contrast to interpreting a piece of uninspired literature. In fact, we may say that the act of interpretation by itself is intuitive.


It may be surprising for some of us, but in general most experienced exegetes would interpret the texts of Scripture they read in pretty much the same way as would a young believer. This is not to say that the Scripture will always be interpreted correctly by anyone; but the difference between true and false interpretations lies not in the steps taken, but in the spirit of the interpreter and the principles employed. In so far as the spirit of the interpreter is concerned, one who would benefit most from the Scripture would be a prayerful believer filled with the Spirit of Christ, who has an impartial and humble mind, and who waits expectantly on the Lord to bless and instruct.


What about principles? One obvious principle, for example, which must be borne in mind when interpreting Scripture, is that Scripture does not contradict Scripture, since God is ultimately the author of all that is in the Bible, whereas we may expect contradictions in uninspired materials, even if they are written by single authors. There are many other important principles. In his useful book entitled Interpretation of the Scriptures (Baker, 1972), A.W. Pink lists a total of thirty principles to bear in mind while interpreting the Scripture. These are principles, which he himself employed in the several decades of studying the Scriptures. Pink wrote the booklet for young preachers, but it is, I believe, useful for anyone who would study his Bible seriously. I shall simply list the thirty principles with some brief remarks, and encourage you to read Pink’s elaboration in his excellent book.


(1) Recognise the interrelation and mutual dependence of the Old and New Testaments [i.e., do not slide into the dispensational error of dividing the two economies too sharply. God has one covenant people and one way of salvation with circumstantial and formal differences in administration].

(2) Observe the manner in which, and the purpose for which, the Old Testament is cited in the New [i.e., consider how the Lord and the Apostles use the Old Testament. Consider, for example, their employment of inferences and their deriving spiritual significance from physical things and events].

(3) Conform all interpretations to the Analogy of Faith [i.e., all interpretations must be consistent with what is taught in the rest of Scripture. Here is where a thorough knowledge of the other parts of Scripture, or at least of systematic theology, is useful].

(4) Pay close attention to the context [e.g., consider how the pernicious doctrine that there is a class of Christians known as carnal Christians, who will be saved as by fire, is derived by wresting 1 Corinthians 3:3 and 1 Corinthians 3:13–15 out of their contexts].

(5) Determine the scope of each passage [really the same point as the previous].

(6) Interpret Scripture by Scripture [i.e., the Bible is self-explanatory, there is no need to go out of the Scripture to find explanations. Also, take the Holy Spirit’s interpretations of Old Testament texts in the New Testament as final].

(7) Interpret briefer statements by fuller ones [e.g., Mark 10:11 must be interpreted with Mathew 5:32, not the other way round].

(8) Collect and collate all passages dealing with the same subject [This is to facilitate principle #3. The Catechism and Confession or a reliable Systematic Theology may be helpful for the beginners].

(9) Present the two sides of every truth or doctrine [Thus sanctification must not be divorced from justification and God’s sovereignty must not cloud out human responsibility. This point is especially for preachers, but helpful for all who study the Bible to bear in mind].

(10) See that the simple negative often implies, conversely, the positive [e.g., compare John 15:5 and Philippians 4:13].

(11) Recognise the statements in the interrogative form that have the force of the emphatic negative [e.g., Job 11:7].

(12) Apply the right use of reason in connection with the things of God [In Pink’s own words: “While reason must not be made the measurer of our belief, yet it is to be used as the handmaid of faith, by comparing passage with passage, deducing inferences and drawing consequences according to legitimate laws of logic. Never is the faculty of reason so worthily employed as in endeavouring to understand Holy Writ”—p. 59].

(13) See the limitation of general statements [such as in the Proverbs].

(14) See positive statements with a comparative [vs. absolute] force [e.g., If Matthew 6:19 is absolute we must have no earthly possessions. But see verse 20].

(15) Recognise non-literal language [Consider the use of Similes (e.g., Eph 5:23);Metaphor (e.g., Ps 23:1a); Metonymy (e.g., Phil 3:3); Hyperbole (e.g., Mt 5:29);Personification (e.g., Ps 114:3–4); Synecdoche (e.g., Gen 17:14).Anthropomorphism & Anthropopathism (e.g., Ps 91:4). Check these terms up in any dictionary].

(16) See the need for elucidation of the types (typology) [e.g., Consider how the tabernacle is a type of Christ].

(17) Adhere to simplicity in the exposition [or interpretation] of the parables [Most parables have only one central lesson].

(18) Recognise that the same words in various passages can have different meanings [e.g., Consider the word “know” in 1 John 2:3].

(19) Determine the actual use of words in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures [TheEnhanced Strong’s Concordance and Vine’s Expository Dictionary may be useful here].

(20) Distinguish various meanings of the same word [e.g., Consider that the word “will” can mean the inviolable decretive will of God, or the precepts of God].

(21) See the spiritual meaning of Scripture [See also #16. “Great care needs to be exercised here, lest on the one hand we be such slaves to ‘literalism’ that we miss the deeper significance and higher import of many things in God’s Word; or lest on the other hand we give free rein to our imagination and ‘read into’ a verse what is not there…”—p. 87].

(22) See the double reference and meaning [See #16. Pink gently objects to the parenthetical remark in WCF 1.9 that the true and full sense of any Scripture text is “not manifold, but one.” But he would no doubt agree that this principle of single sense should be a general rule for most of Scripture, and also that even in the exceptions where there are multifold senses, these senses, which are never contradictory, cohere to give the one full meaning of the text].

(23) Follow the law of order [I am not sure if I agree with Pink’s speculation here. No great loss to ignore it].

(24) See the law of cause and effect [e.g., Consider the progression of Lot’s life and the chastisement David experienced after his great sin].

(25) Observe the law of emphasis [e.g., Consider the significance of repetition in Isaiah 6:3 and the significance of God writing the Ten Commandments with His own finger].

(26) Find out the origin of words [See #19].

(27) Be aware of the law of comparison and contrast [“While this rule is much less important… than many of the others, it is of deep interest”—p. 116. Read for yourself what he is referring to. I would in place recommend also attention to parallelism in the Word, especially in the poetic books. Consider Synonymous or Complementing Parallelism (e.g., Prov 2:11; 19:5); Antithetical or Contrasting Parallelism (e.g. Prov 10:1; 11:5); Emblematic or Comparing Parallelism (e.g., Prov 11:22; 27:17); Synthetic or Cascading Parallelism (e.g., Prov 16:3; 15:3)].

(28) Follow the law of first mention [More for expositors. No great lost for the general reader to ignore].

(29) See the law of progress [Consider how Christ is revealed progressively throughout the Old Testament].

(30) Observe the law of full mention [Realise that “somewhere in the Bible each of its prominent themes is given a complete and systematic presentation”—p. 132].


I hope you are not discouraged, by this rather daunting list, from studying the Scripture yourself. Actually, not all the principles listed above are necessary for the general reading and study of the Scripture. I list them all, both to encourage you to read the book and to give you an idea of what principles the mature interpreter may employ in his study of the Word of God. I hope that, for some of us, this will indicate that there is yet room for us to grow in our handling and understanding of Scripture, and at the same time to get an idea of how preachers and commentators may have arrived at their interpretation. But if you ask me which principles you should particularly pay attention to in your personal study of the Scripture, my answer would be: (1) The principle that Scripture does not contradict Scripture and that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture (See principles #1, 3, 6, and 7); (2) The principle that verses must not be wrested from their contexts (See principles #4 and 5); and (3) The principle of literary (not literal) sense. That is, a passage must be interpreted according to its literary genre. So legal statements, historical narrations and epistolary passages should generally be taken literally, bearing in mind the use of figurative language in some instances and the presence of typological meanings in some cases; whereas in all other genres, not every verse is to be taken literally. This is especially so in the poetic texts (e.g., Psalms), in prophecy, in Old Testament promises and in parables (See principles #2, 15, 16, 17, and 21).


Application


No study of Scripture is complete without application. Up to now we are concerned with the meaning of the text of Scripture as delivered to us. Application is concerned with how the Scripture can renew our minds and transform our lives (Rom 12:2; Jas 1:22). Every text of Scripture lends itself to multiple applications. In some sense even if the application can only be obliquely forced from a passage but agrees with other passages in Scripture, it may still be a valid application (See Vern Poythress’ book, God-Centred Hermeneutics). But discipline and prudence (how do you know your application agrees with other passages of Scripture?) demand that we should as far as possible draw applications logically and directly from the passage being studied. With this in mind, let me suggest five questions to ask to apply any passage to ourselves: (1) Is there a 
Sin for me to avoid? (2) Is there a Promise for me to trust? (3) Is there an Example for me to follow? (4) Is there a Command for me to obey? (5) Is there aKey principle for me to remember?


Conclusion


It is obviously quite impossible in this short article to give even a usable introduction on interpretation, not to mention treat the subject exhaustively. But I hope these brief words will encourage you to read and study the Scripture more diligently. Or, at least, I hope it will encourage you to pick up a book on Hermeneutics (science of Interpretation), so that you may be better acquainted with how to study the Scripture by yourself. In addition to Pink’s book (145 pages), I would also recommend: Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Baker, 1950, 176 pages); and Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Baker, 1981, 263 pages). God willing, we may have occasion to study the subject thoroughly together, but for now if you have never read a book on Hermeneutics, I would strongly urge you to. You will no doubt find it a great blessing.

Let us make use of every appointed means to hear the teaching of the Word. But let us also set aside time each day to read and study the Word of God personally. Our Lord asserts: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Lk 4:4). If we neglect the study of His Word, we can expect to be spiritually scrawny and easily fall prey to the devil in his many devices, for he is ever prowling around us like a lion ready to devour us (1 Pet 5:8). May the Lord grant us the help and illumination of His Spirit as we feast on His Word each day.


JJ Lim