“Pick and Choose” or “Name It & Claim It?” Bible Interpretation
How do you approach the Bible? How do you know that your approach to the Bible gleans the most accurate understanding of the scripture? Do you simply open and read and see what you are impressed with? Or do you have a set of assumptions that guide your approach to God’s word? In fact, everyone approaches the Bible with a set of assumptions. But some assumptions are faulty while others are better suited for receiving life changing truth from the Bible’s pages.
It is important to recognize that we all have assumptions about the Bible, and many within the church have differing assumptions. Many people have some things in common about the Bible, and some important differences. For instance, we may agree that the Bible is the word of God and should be taken as our authority for all things in the Christian life.
But we may part ways on how passages of scripture should be interpreted and appropriated. Indeed, many Bible teachers, especially those in the prosperity gospel movement, often appropriate verses from the Bible that at a surface level would seem to be exactly about what the teacher is teaching, whilst other evangelicals scratch their heads in light of the context or culture of the passage. Let me provide a brief example.
In III John 1:2 the Apostle John writes to Gaius, and begins his letter to him with an eloquent greeting. “The elder to the beloved Gaius, who I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
This is a foundational passage for many prosperity gospel teachers. From this passage many of these teachers claim that it is God’s will that believers be financially prosperous and healthy. However, there are two things about this passage that the non-prosperity person notices. First, this statement by John may simply be regarded as nothing more than a kind greeting by John to Gaius. It is eloquent and full of blessing, but it is not necessarily meant to convey a specific doctrinal point about financial blessing or bodily well-being. It would be like one of us saying in a letter or email, “I hope you are well.” It is a greeting of kindness, not a doctrinal statement, and thus should be interpreted as such.
Second, if we accept the prosperity position that this passage teaches that it is God’s will for the Christian to be financially prosperous, then we have a problem in the context. It might be said that Gaius is not prospering since John notes that he prays for this outcome. It is clear that Gaius’ soul is prospering, but his wealth and health may not be in the same condition. If his soul prospers then we can say with reasonable certainty that Gaius is not involved in any sin to John’s knowledge, nor is he having a problem with his faith.
Therefore, there should be no impediment (under prosperity teaching) for Gaius to prosper in wealth and health either. In fact, this seems to be affirmed in the very next verse, “For I was very glad when brothers came and testified to your truth, that is, how you are walking in the truth” (1:3). If Gaius is walking in the truth and his soul prospers, then why does John say he is praying for his wealth and health when under prosperity teaching that blessing should be automatic for the person who is correctly walking with Jesus?
Of these two explanations I think the first is most likely. When compared to the way letters and greetings were written in John’s day it becomes apparent that there is nothing more intended in this passage than to pass on a friendly and warm greeting to a brother in Christ. Understanding what this passage means is predicated on understanding how letters such as this were written in John’s day. The culture in which John lived usually began personal correspondence with eloquent or flowery greetings about the reader’s relationship with the writer, or acknowledgement of the reader’s situation, and well wishes.
The Apostle Paul’s greetings are an excellent example of just the same cultural practice. In fact, this kind of greetings is not unlike many business letters I have received while heading up a Christian TV station in Mongolia. Usually, when someone would send me a letter the first paragraph would always be about our accomplishments in the community, our good reputation, and good wishes for the future. Sometimes these would take more than one paragraph!
Only after this would the writer move on to the real business at hand. Therefore, from these examples we can see that interpreting what is written in a New Testament letter requires some familiarity with the practices of first century communications.
So how do we approach the Bible? There are many excellent books on this subject. I won’t attempt to repeat their principles here. However, it is good to understand that everyone, whether a believer or unbeliever always approaches the Bible from a certain set of assumptions.
The atheist approaches the Bible with a decidedly anti-supernatural viewpoint.
The Muslim or the Mormon approaches the Bible from an assumption that the Bible is either corrupted and/or an incomplete revelation.
A post-modernist approaches the Bible with assumptions that truth concepts are relative and not fixed. There are many assumptions made by many different peoples when approaching the Bible.
How should we approach the Bible?
If we want to get the most out of the Bible that we can, with a balanced understanding of history and contemporary application then there are a few guiding assumptions that we should apply. These assumptions come from an intentionally pro-supernatural point of view. Each of these assumptions also fall in line with how the Bible presents itself to us.
For instance, the Bible does not present itself to us as a book of myths and fairy tales. It presents itself, in part, as a series of narratives communicating historical events, reporting about God’s activities in the world during the periods of which it writes. For us to approach the Bible as a book of myths would be to approach it contrary to how it presents itself, and would potentially limit us from discovering some truth in its pages that can’t be communicated otherwise.
So what assumptions should a Christian make when approaching the Bible? What follows are nine assumptions that I hold to when approaching the Bible. I hope you find these as valuable in your study of the scripture as I have in mine.
The Bible is the word of God and is the authoritative source for all practical matters of Christian life and doctrine (II Timothy 3:16). As such, we must depend upon the Bible as our senior and final authority on all topics which it addresses.
Interpreting, appropriating, and applying scriptural truth best happens when the historical, cultural, and literary context and forms within the Bible are properly understood (Job 8:8-10).
Understanding the scripture writer’s intentions in writing a passage is critical to understanding scripture’s meaning (John 20:31; Romans 15:4). Whether it is the Bible or any other book, meaning should not be divorced from the writer’s intentions.
Scripture must not be approached in a mystical fashion. The normal rules of examining and interpreting literature apply to the Bible as they do to any other book. The Bible’s source is divine, but it uses the same constructs and human concepts as any other book which makes it understandable to any human being (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Approaching the Bible in a mystical fashion pulls the text outside of normal human understanding for which it was written.
We must recognize that appropriating scripture to our situation is a subjective approach and does not necessarily provide us with the writer’s intended meaning (I Timothy 1:6-7). We must recognize that how we appropriate scripture does not carry the same weight or authority as the scripture itself (I Corinthians 8:2; 13:9,12). We are fallible.
The meaning of the biblical text is gleaned from the original meaning of its words, the content within which it is written, the intention of the writer, and the culture within which it was written. Meaning that doesn’t take these four things into account can lead to errors of interpretation, appropriation, and application.
The Holy Spirit is the primary author of scripture (John 15:16; II Peter 1:21) and as such He uses scripture in the life of the believer for transformation and daily practical Christian living.
The work, leading, and empowering of the Holy Spirit will never contradict the meaning of scripture. Since He is the scripture’s author He will not contradict in speaking or in practice that which He has already declared. This is why we may regard scripture as our final authority in all things to which it speaks. It is the Holy Spirit who spoke it.
What do you think? I welcome your inquiries about how to approach the Bible.