Think About What You Believe
It is more important than you might think

Interpreting Scripture
This is an area that I think is critically important to understanding God's Word. A lot has been written about interpreting scripture.  My basic take is that if scripture is the Word of God, what it says will be validated in true science, personal experience, and every other expression of reality that exists. 

For any philosophy to be true, it must have ultimate predictive and descriptive power.  It is true only insofar as it can 100% accurately predict and describe actual events that happen.  That is, it must be able to assess a given situation, then predict what will happen in the future based on its understanding.  It must also be able to describe what has actually happened according to its understanding. 

The Bible has enormous predictive power.  It predicted Alexander's invasion of Persia and the regathering of Israel, along with a lot of other historical events. 

There are some principles of interpretation that need to be established to get beyond the literal, grammatical rendering of every verse of scripture. For a long time, I have taken the position that scripture says exactly what it means, and it means exactly what it says. The literal, grammatical, plain sense meaning of what it says is what God intended for us to understand. I believe in the inerrancy and authority of scripture for all matters, public and private, believer and unbeliever, for now and to the end of the world. The Bible is our 'truth-stick' (like a yardstick, except infinitely more precise) for measuring the truth of literally everything. That said, there are some qualifications necessary to rightly divide the word of truth. 

In order to dig into this, and by way of example, let's look at what Jesus says about divorce:

Matthew 5:32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Mark 10:11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

Mark 10:12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Luke 16:18 Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

There are other verses, but I'm not trying to write a book, so let's just use these. The plain sense meaning of the above verses indicate that fornication or adultery is the only allowable reason for divorce. Otherwise the divorcing partner sins. There are many theologians, counselors, and others who take this position. They want to honor God and His Word and believe exactly what he says. They are literalists. I think most of us would call ourselves literalists, because we believe that position regarding interpretation of scripture is the only one that truly honors God. Now let's develop what that means.

Let's say a couple get married and have several kids and both partners are faithful to each other. Now let's say one of them gets involved in Satanism and sacrifices one of their children to Satan. Then he/she becomes verbally and physically abusive to the other partner, to the point of broken bones or worse. Then the Satanist threatens to sacrifice the remaining children to Satan. All the while the Satanist, and the good partner, remain physically faithful to each other (not likely, but this is hypothetical).

Now, to the questions:

  1. Was Jesus unaware of situations like this (and possibly worse) happening when he said what he did in the above verses?
  2. Would Jesus require the good partner in such a marriage to remain in the marriage, and risk the destruction of their remaining children and their own possible demise as a result of abuse?
  3. Are the Bible verses concerning divorce all that God says about divorce?

The answer to question no. 1 has to be NO.  Jesus is the creator of the entire universe, and therefore is aware of everything that is, no matter what it is.  The answer to question no. 3 is YES if you restrict your answer to verses that specifically mention divorce, or putting away, or whatever term the original Greek or Hebrew uses.  This is the literalist method of interpretation.  The answer is NO if you include passages that deal with peripheral situations inherent in a divorce, which I think we must.  This is the rub.  The answer to question no. 2 is where we start slogging into the swamp of interpretation.

If we answer YES to question no. 3, then, in order to take these verses literally, in the plain sense grammatical meaning, one would have to answer yes to question no. 2. That means whatever the Bible says about self-defense, loving one's neighbor, protecting children, etc., does not apply. Yet, in order to be absolutely literal in our interpretation, we must take that position. And many do.  This has been one of the bigger blots on Christianity over the centuries.  When literalists apply a few verses to a situation with an authoritarian vengeance, they become the servants of Satan, not God. Aleister Crowley's parents were authoritarian Plymouth Brethren, and look at the evil beast they gave us.  Can anyone call their method of Biblical interpretation correct?

The point is that every scripture must be compared with every other scripture to develop the full meaning of the text. I think Jesus is expressing a very high view of marriage in these verses, but is not presenting a treatise on how to deal with marriage problems. Like Genesis chapter 1, God is condensing a great deal of material into a very short space and giving his hearers something simple that they can relate to and understand.

Multitudes of books have been written about marriage and how to deal with marriage problems, much of it scriptural. Yet Jesus gives us just a few verses in the New Testament that deal directly with divorce, and are grammatically clear in their plain sense meaning. My take is that scripture is holographic, if you will. A holograph is a 3D picture on film that looks like a bunch of rectangles and lines. When you shine a laser through it, the image is recreated as a 3D image in 3D space, where you can walk all the way around it and see all of the details. Yet, if you cut out a small square of that holographic film, the entire 3D image remains within it. It may be fainter, but the whole thing is still there. So, if scripture is understood correctly, every part of scripture agrees with every other part of scripture, and any one part of it somehow has the whole of it within it. I don't understand how God does that, but I believe it to be true. A simple way to say this is that “all of scripture applies to all of life all the time”. We can't just take one, two or ten verses and assume those are the only things the Bible says about a given subject, no matter how grammatically clear they are. All of scripture applies to all situations. So before we take a verse in its plain sense grammatical meaning, we need to understand everything else scripture says about the subject and things that relate to it. You can take almost any passage in scripture, take it absolutely literally, and end up with some very unscriptural meanings.


HOW SHOULD WE INTERPRET SCRIPTURE?

  1. God gave us His unchanging revelation in written form in order to provide for us an unchanging, immovable foundation on which to build our lives and our posterity.

  2. God's written Word, as penned in the original manuscripts, in the original language, are the measuring stick we use to evaluate all truth.

  3. Textual criticism, properly done, is the best way to determine exactly what the original manuscripts said.

  4. Although there are some contested textual passages in scripture, most of the text of scripture, and all of the scripture texts dealing with critical doctrine, are clear and uncontested, thereby providing us a reliable textual rendition of God's Word. Interpretation of the texts is an entirely different matter.

  5. No one person's understanding of scripture is perfect or absolute. Every interpreter of scripture makes mistakes in understanding. We don't always know what those mistakes are, nor are we always aware of our own mistakes.

  6. When a preponderance of early church fathers, who were accepted as true spiritual leaders by the vast majority of Christians in the centuries immediately after Christ, agree on a certain understanding of scripture, it is likely that understanding is correct.

  7. The fact that many respected scholars agree on an understanding of scripture does not make that understanding correct.

  8. When our understanding of scripture is unclear or conflicting, we must go back to the original language, understood in the context of the culture at the time the text was written, with an accurate understanding of relevant historical events, in order to determine a true understanding of the Scriptures.

  9. Fundamental doctrinal teachings are clearly delineated in Scripture. There is no ambiguity on critical matters of doctrine and practice, because God makes his ordained truth perfectly clear in those areas. He tells us what is important and commands us to obey Him.

  10. History, as presented in the Bible, is a brief synopsis of the high points of important events that are critical to understanding doctrine and practice. The Bible does not give us comprehensive or encyclopedic accounts of any historical event.

  11. In order to better understand the historical events scripture tells us about, we must go to reliable historical accounts by Jewish patriarchs, historians, and prophets. Reliable secular historians can also be valuable. We must always understand the writer's biases when we study their work.

  12. We must always be aware that Satan will corrupt every fundamental understanding of Scripture he can in order to lead us astray. We must remember that he is the master deceiver and just because we are Christians does not exempt us from being deceived. Sometimes understanding the truth requires some very careful hair-splitting.

  13. When the Holy Spirit shows us a true understanding of scripture, it will never contradict a faithful understanding of any other scripture.

  14. When scripture references other books and the writer assumes their contents to be true, we can refer to those books as accurate representations of truth, as penned in the original manuscripts. Alternatively, we can use the same versions of those books the Biblical writers used and were familiar with. We must be careful not to use versions of those texts that have been corrupted by heresy.

  15. A correct and faithful understanding of scripture will generate inner peace, conviction from the Holy Spirit, true repentance, confidence in righteousness, but never confusion, and will never accept, approve of, encourage or condone evil behavior.

  16. If our understanding of scripture predicts certain events and they don't happen as predicted, our understanding of scripture is incorrect.

  17. The final measure of truth is the working out in history, and our daily lives, of what a true understanding of scripture describes or predicts. Scripture accurately predicts, or records, the outcome of every historical event it addresses. It will also accurately predict the results of following, or not following, scriptural guidelines. Predictive and descriptive ability is the ultimate measure of truth.

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