This post is in response to a dear friend who has inquired as to my methods of studying and interpreting the Scriptures. Rather than just respond to him personally, I thought that many people reading this site may have the same question, so I made a post out of it. Thanks for the inspiration, my friend!
So this post is going to be a little different from my other ones. I want to address, point by point, the methodology for accurately interpreting Scripture that is currently being taught widely among Christian scholarly institutions, including modern seminaries. I have some personal insight into the theological teachings being taught to ministry students today, as my husband is just about to graduate with his Christian ministry degree.
Why is it important to address this? Because what we are going to look at is THE modern methodology for studying the Scriptures. It is largely uncontested in Christian scholarly circles, and, because it is being taught in Christian academia, it is filtering down to Christian church congregations (and has been for some time.) This is the method, that (according to Bible scholars) YOU are supposed to use to accurately study and interpret the Bible, so this relates to YOU.
There is a scholarly term (which you may or may not know) I want to introduce you to before we begin:
Hermeneutics: the scholarly term for Biblical interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics is defined as “the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible.” Note that hermeneutics is not so much the study of the Bible itself as the study of the “principles of interpretation” of the Bible. Much of modern seminary study is spent in study of these “principles.”
Now, let’s examine this term in more depth. This is going to be a fairly long post, so you may want to grab a cup o’ joe and settle in for the ride. *wink*
(I want to note that the following explanations of Biblical hermeneutics are quotes from the reputable Christian website www.gotquestions.org. Gotquestions.org provides some great information about Christianity and the Bible and I’m grateful that they have the heart to minister the Gospel to folks online. I’m going to take these widespread teachings to task right now, but I do not by any means disagree with all that they promote.)
Here we go:
Quote 1: “The most important law of biblical hermeneutics is that the Bible should be interpreted literally. Literal Bible interpretation means we understand the Bible in its normal/plain meaning. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. Many make the mistake of trying to read between the lines and come up with meanings for Scriptures that are not truly in the text. Yes, of course, there are some spiritual truths behind the plain meanings of Scripture. That does not mean that every Scripture has a hidden spiritual truth, or that it should be our goal to find all such spiritual truths. Biblical hermeneutics keeps us faithful to the intended meaning of Scripture and away from allegorizing and symbolizing Bible verses and passages that should be understood literally.”
Are you serious? Totally disagree. In fact, this is Scripturally incorrect.
Let’s see what the Bible says about hidden spiritual truths:
1 Corinthians 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.
The wisdom of God is “in a mystery.” God has intentionally shrouded His truth in symbolism and parables.
Isaiah 44:18 They have not known nor understood: for he hath shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand.
Why has He done this? So that those who are not willing to humbly and passionately search out the deep truths, the hidden manna (see Rev. 2:17,) will not gain great wisdom and understanding and then attempt to use the power of Truth for evil.
I would contend to you that EVERY Scripture has a hidden spiritual truth, and that it should ALWAYS be our goal to find out such spiritual truths. Scriptures have both a physical meaning, and a spiritual meaning. EVERY TIME. Invest yourself in this principle, and the Bible will be so much more fun and exciting to study, I promise you. When my friend first asked me how, exactly, I read my Bible, my answer, though simple, was complete. I said “Expectantly.” That is how I study my Bible! Expectantly. Every time I open it, I fully expect that God is going to graciously and generously give me deep spiritual truths to chew on and eventually digest and incorporate into my whole self. That is why I cite James 1:5 on the home page of this website:
James 1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
I genuinely believe it!!! Ask Him for wisdom and He will give it to you LIBERALLY! Praise GOD!
Folks, there is so much more intricacy and complexity and resplendence to the Bible than you or I can possibly imagine. Woven within the Scriptures are such magnificent illustrations of Truth that you could never have enough time in this life (or even eternity) to discover it all. Seriously, that’s how remarkable it is. To diminish it to the notion that “all Scripture should be interpreted literally and not expected to have a deeper spiritual meaning” is to diminish God. (One of the first posts I ever did on this website was examining how even John the Baptist’s food was prophetic. Talk about deep spiritual truths in even the smallest details of the Bible.)
Let’s take a look at the next principle of Biblical hermeneutics:
Quote 2: “A second crucial law of biblical hermeneutics is that a verse or passage must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually. Historical interpretation refers to understanding the culture, background, and situation which prompted the text. Grammatical interpretation is recognizing the rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages and applying those principles to the understanding of a passage. Contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine the meaning.”
A verse or passage must be interpreted historically, grammatically, and contextually. Really. Wow. (Well, part of that is correct; reading the verse contextually by examining passages surrounding the verse will help immensely with grasping the true meaning.) But I guess some country bumpkin just reading the Bible on his own cannot possibly even begin to understand what God is trying to say to us. Poor common peasant. He doesn’t even stand a chance. He’ll never comprehend the Truth. Never mind Paul’s exhortation:
2 Corinthians 11:3 But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
The simplicity that is in Christ. Despite the magnificence and intricacy of His Word, the Lord has deemed it fit for it to have a simplicity that anyone can understand. You know who was one of the greatest Bible teachers of all time?? A fisherman by trade. Peter, who brought three thousand people to Christ in one sermon, was just a common fisherman when he was called to be an apostle.
Acts 4:13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.
Unlearned and ignorant men. But men who had spent time with Jesus. And because of that, they knew the truth.
This second principle of hermeneutics is what my husband likes to call “Ivory Tower Christianity.” It’s the same old trick the devil has been using for time immemorial. Think back to the time when the Scriptures were published only in Latin. The Bible was taught only by Roman Catholic priests; this prevented laymen from reading and applying the Word for themselves. They had little choice but to be “spoon fed” by those who were “in the know.”
Pope Innocent III declared in 1099 that the Scriptures “cannot be understood by everyone, but only by those who are qualified to understand them with informed intelligence.”
Let’s go even further back: the Jewish leaders taught -- and continue to teach -- that “no one but the accepted Rabbis have the right to interpret Torah law.” (Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, mesora.org).
The following quote is taken from Simpletoremember.com, a website dedicated to assisting people in understanding modern Judaism:
"Now when the Sages come to understand a verse, they do so as scientists using clear tools of interpretation. They look at the exact words that are used, they identify apparent redundancies and they see whether any one of the 13 Hermeneutic Principles are applicable. They identify any apparent ambiguities and line up all the different possible ways in which a verse may be interpreted. They then interpret the verse at all four levels of interpretation, checking that the levels are consistent and checking that this interpretation is consistent with everything else that is said in the Torah. Interpreting the Torah is then not an open-ended exercise in creativity. It is a result of laborious analysis, with the intended meaning of the verse emerging, per force, from the information that unfolds."
Looks an awful lot like the earlier quotes on Christian hermeneutics principles, doesn’t it? Funny how there is so much intense “scientific” study by these Sages (Rabbis,) and yet they entirely miss the simplicity that is in Jesus Christ.
What we’re seeing here is a bunch of theologians, both Christian and Jewish, who sit in their Ivory Towers and declare to the masses what is required to truly understand the Truth of God: extensive higher education, and the use of various technical resources, including Greek and Hebrew lexicons, history books, concordances, maps, multiple translations, etc.
Stuff and nonsense.
Here’s what the Bible actually says on this issue:
John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
Funny, but I heard NOT ONE WORD about the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit in all that intellectual talk on hermeneutics.
That’ why I called this post The Horse’s Mouth. There is an expression “straight from the horse’s mouth,” which means “I got this information straight from the original source.”
Would you prefer to hear a commentary and interpretation of something someone said, or would you prefer to hear him say it for yourself?
I want you to understand this fundamental spiritual truth: YOU CAN UNDERSTAND GOD FOR YOURSELF BY GOING STRAIGHT TO THE SOURCE -- THE HOLY SPIRIT OF GOD.
But how will you know if it’s the Holy Spirit leading you, rather than your own mind or an evil spirit guiding you into lies and confusion?
The Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) will never teach you something that is against the Word of God. It is a witness to the truth of God’s Word, that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established,” (Matthew 18:16.)
That’s why it’s so important that we study our Bible. The Spirit of God will lead you into understanding and wisdom by bringing to mind Scriptures that you have read in the past and with which you have familiarized yourself. Jesus explains this in the gospel of John:
John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Here’s the thing: you have to truly have faith in God in order to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you. In a way, it’s easier to just trust what some other dude said about a particular Bible verse or subject, because then it’s not your fault if it’s mistaken. And it’s so easy to doubt ourselves, isn’t it? And it’s so easy to doubt God!
But I want to tell you a secret (and it’s a personal one.) I have believed and zealously shared some wrong doctrines over the years. And you know what? God, seeing my heart and my love for Him and genuine thirst for truth, was faithful to correct me and set me on the straight path!
For instance, when the Lord first led me to see that the King James Bible was the closest interpretation of Scriptural truth, I zealously got involved in a church that taught exclusively from the King James Bible. Unfortunately, they (and consequently, I, myself) also taught the false doctrine called “Once Saved, Always Saved” that erroneously teaches that once a person has been saved and delivered from their sins, they are basically absolved from any responsibility to maintain their walk with Christ (walk worthy – Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12.) This doctrine teaches that they will be freely received into Heaven at the judgment regardless of what their life subsequent to their salvation demonstrated about their true heart for God.
Regardless of how they treated God’s children from that point on.
Regardless of whether or not they kept the Ten Commandments.
Regardless of whether or not they treated others as they would want to be treated.
But Jesus said this about those who subscribe to that false doctrine:
Matthew 7:22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
Matthew 25:41-46 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
In any case, God was faithful to correct me using a willing teacher and the multiple Scriptures which directly contradict this false notion.
He saw that I really wanted to know the truth, and not just for myself, but that I might enthusiastically share with others the Goodness of God! And if you desire to do the same, you can trust Him. He will not lead you astray….and if someone or something does, He will be faithful to correct you!
But the thing is, if you genuinely ask God for wisdom, you have to be willing to receive what He gives you, even if it calls into question well-established dogmas or doctrines you have been taught and have earnestly believed for years. Here’s how God explains it in James:
James 1:5-8 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.
For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.
A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
In other words, don’t ask God for the truth if you can’t handle it. Because if you only want to hear what you think is right, rather than the truth of God, and you ignore His counsel, then don’t count on Him wasting His breath on you next time you ask.
Sometimes, the truth hurts; but in the end, only the truth has the power to heal.
So we see that there are many deep, hidden spiritual truths that the Lord would love to liberally expound upon to us if we have the true desire and heart to receive that knowledge.
But does God have some requirements of us before He disseminates His wisdom to us?
Absolutely. And they have little to do with scholarly and intellectual pursuits.
Micah 6:8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. That’s it. That is walking worthy. Worthy of receiving great wisdom and understanding from the Lord, regardless of your higher education or access to other “scholarly” (human, and therefore, fallible) resources.
What we have going on in our seminaries and theological schools today is the teaching of insidious, elite doctrines that categorically deny the truth of such Scriptures as this:
1 Corinthians 1:26-27 For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.
I am grateful that I was generously provided with a good human education; but I am more grateful that laymen, country bumpkins, and small children (often moreso than anyone!! See Psalm 8:2) can also accurately discern the truth of God’s Word if they seek the Spirit of God.
After all, Abraham did it with NO resources save the Spirit of God Himself! (Galatians 3:6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.)
And the whole idea of us understanding Scripture and interpreting it correctly is that we might implement it; that we be DOERS of the Word, and not HEARERS only (James 1:22.)
Want to be a spiritual giant? Here's James' advice (as per God's leading):
James 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
To sit around in our “ivory towers” declaring who can understand Scripture and who cannot is to usurp the authority of God Himself to examine the hearts of men and determine who is worthy of His Pearls of Wisdom.
If we want to truly follow God, if we want to truly know Him, all we really need is the simplicity that is in Christ.
And Christ, God Himself in the flesh, said this:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matt 22:37-40.)
And there it is – straight from “the horse’s mouth.”