"...but try the spirits whether they are of God..." (1 Jno. 4:1)

Volume One, Number Two Spring 1991

Principles of Interpretation

Terry M. Hightower

If two people receive the same (uninspired) letter from a friend, the basic elements involved in interpreting the letter would be (A) the letter itself, and (B) the handling of the content of the letter. Similarly, before anyone can be a good student of the Bible (i.e., accurately interpret the message God has for man), he must understand that the basic elements involved in Biblical interpretation are: (1) the total evidence, and (2) the handling of that evidence.

The Handling

The phrase "the evidence" is synonymous with the expression "the total context" and refers to the adding together of three things: (1) the specific statement of the Bible under consideration, (2) the immediate context of that statement, and (3) the remote context of that statement. It is important to understand the meaning of these expressions. "The specific statement" refers to a single passage or sentence in the Bible which is being studied or considered. "The immediate context" refers to the material immediately before and after the specific statement. "The remote context" refers to all that is relevant to the specific statement itself in the totality of the Bible (other than the specific statement itself and the immediate context).

Handling the Evidence

The mere reading (or even memorization) of the Bible is not sufficient to guarantee that one will understand what the Bible teaches. One must surely know what the Bible says, that is, he must know the actual (explicit statements making up the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. But one must also learn how the various statements, paragraphs, chapters, and books relate to one another. Jesus made clear that statements in one part of Bible modify what is written in another part of it. After Satan had quoted Psalm 91:11, Jesus said, "Again it is written..." and quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16, showing that this passage modified the surface meaning of Psalm 91:11 (Matthew 4:1-11). We can know that Jesus wept" because a specific statement in the Bible explicitly says so (John 11:35), but we also know by inference that John 11:35 implies that Jesus Christ had the human emotion of sorrow. The immediate context of John 11:35 teaches us why Jesus wept (i.e. because of the death of his friend Lazarus). The "remote context" includes such passages as Luke 19:41, which shows that Jesus wept over additional matters. Thus, in order to understand the Biblical message, men today must know not only what the Bible explicitly says, but also what it implies by its explicit statements.

Rational or Irrational?

Basically, there are only two alternatives as to how one will react to the evidence: (1) he can choose to be rational, or (2) he can choose to be irrational. Since the religious world has available for its use exactly the same totality of Bible statements or evidence, it is clear that it is not enough merely to know what the evidence is -- one must properly interpret that evidence. One can learn what the Bible means only by correctly reasoning about what the Bible says. In short, one must correctly apply the principles of logic to the totality of statements of the entire Bible. The Bible demands that men use logic, recognizing the proper role of reason in connection with the Bible evidence (I Thessalonians 5:21; Acts 17:11; I Corinthians 15:12-19), "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) [Editor's Note: This article was taken from the Lectureship book Rightly Dividing The Word Volume I, General Hermeneutics The Fourth Annual Shenandoah Lectures, and is used by permission.]

CHALLENGE is published quarterly by Challenge Publications.
Jerry D. McDonald, Editor; Michael P. Hughes, Associate Editor.

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