Interpretation is a science and an art. As a science it deals with words, their definitions and contextual meaning. As an art, interpretation focuses on weaving together an understanding of the whole work. Biblical interpretation requires the study of the original languages, of the text, of its historical and cultural background, and its literary structure. As an art, Biblical interpretation looks for patterns and themes; unifying threads that draw the Biblical narrative into a seamless whole.
A principle tenet of Biblical interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture. The Church Father Tertullian referred to this as the "analogy of faith." In other words, some passages of Scripture have plain meanings. These become the standards by which we understand more obscure passages. The clear interprets the less clear. Some people follow the reverse procedure, creating whole doctrines from an obscure word or phrase, and usually end up starting a cult in the American desert.
A good interpretive method emphasizes the unity of the Bible. The Old and New Testaments are not independent of each other. They offer the complete story of God's people. One of the chief proofs of this is the continuity of prophecy. Many Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled explicitly in the New Testament, and the original prophecies are almost always referenced specifically.
Equally crucial is the fact that every passage of Scripture has meaning—even genealogies. Our postmodern culture tempts us to write off things we don't understand. "It doesn't mean anything, it just is" seems to be a common attitude. We can't read the Bible this way. Jesus taught us that “not one jot or tittle of Scripture will pass away until all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18). God inspired its authors to write all they wrote for a reason. We expect to find that meaning in the Bible. Otherwise, it becomes a fairytale or ethical guide, and not the powerful Word of God.
This idea that God inspired human authors to write the Bible is probably the one tenet of Christianity most under attack in our hyper-modern/postmodern world. Unfortunately, it's in ill-repute almost as much among Christians as non-Christians, with noted church leaders implying if not outright proclaiming that the Bible contains errors, that it's merely a human document, or that it can't be trusted in all its historic particulars.
One frequent objection to the divine source of the Bible is the question of canonicity. What books got into the Christian Scripture and why? Should we include the Gospel of Thomas? Wasn't the canon (accepted books) invented at the Nicean Council, and that under the influence of a politically-driven Emperor of dubious faith? These are questions that must be answered, though typically they aren't nearly as difficult to answer as skeptics and critics often assume.
Because we believe that the Bible is the self-revelation of God himself, we also believe that it is the triune God himself who has preserved and maintained it throughout history. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors, and ensured that the final product would include the correct documents by working through human agents, and he was able to do this because he is God. It doesn't take much digging to realize that it's the current philosophic materialism prevalent in our culture that has cast doubt on this explanation as to the Bible's origins.
As the author of Hebrews states, "By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible" (Hebrews 11:3). If we take it on faith that God made all things, and that he entered human history as Jesus Christ to live sinlessly and save us from sin, death and the Devil, why would we not believe also that he has preserved his Word? All these beliefs originate from the Bible, and it would be senseless to cut and paste what we like and don't like when the words of Scripture claim to be from God's mouth.
Ultimately, whether or not you believe the Bible is the Word of God will determine if you accept the entirety of the Christian faith, or reject it in favor of a "faith" that is heterodox and based on man's supposed wisdom rather than God's truth. God isn't wringing his hands hoping that people will find his Word to be true: he has proclaimed it, and he expects us to accept it on that authority alone. That's not to say it won't stand up to historical scrutiny (it will), but the fact that it is God's Word is what makes it worth hearing, believing, and preaching.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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