March 13, 2014 Broadcast

The Science of Interpretation

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Interpreting and understanding the Bible is sometimes compared to interpreting art.  Unless we learn a few basic tools and principles, more than likely we will miss the author’s intended meaning.  In this lesson, Dr. Sproul teaches us The Science of Interpretation.

From the series: Knowing Scripture

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Tools for Bible Study

  2. article

    Logical Fallacies

  3. article

    The Importance of Sound Exegesis

Tools for Bible Study

This week we have been looking at the process of hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation. We explored the grammatico- historical method, explicit versus implicit deductions, and the basic literary forms found in the Bible. Today we conclude our brief study of hermeneutics by outlining some of the tools necessary for Bible study.

Scripture. The first tool for Bible study is the Bible itself. Since most people cannot read the original Hebrew and Greek text of the Scriptures, a good English translation is needed. The best translations in English rely on a literal “word for word” approach to translation. The English Standard Version is perhaps the best translation currently available in English that relies mostly on a literal “word for word” approach.

Concordances. Serious study also necessitates the use of a concordance to look up Bible verses. You can find the location of a verse in the Bible by looking up a word that you know is part of the verse. A concordance can also be used to find many of the texts that address a particular biblical theme. Dozens of concordances are available in book stores and on the Internet.

Bible Dictionaries. A good Bible dictionary for looking up definitions and a good Bible atlas for viewing biblical maps are also indispensable for study. These tools help the modern reader become familiar with unfamiliar terms and the biblical culture.

Commentaries. The Bible is the church’s only infallible authority, and throughout history God has raised up men within the church to teach the truths of His Word. Biblical commentaries help us see what the church has learned from Scripture. Commentaries written by those within the Reformed tradition, such as John Calvin’s commentaries, have proven to be reliable commentaries that have withstood the test of time.

In Knowing Scripture, Dr. Sproul recommends that those who would like an overview of the message of Scripture read these books in the following order: Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Psalms, Proverbs, Luke, Acts, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, 1‑Peter, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, and Romans. At the bottom left-hand corner of Tabletalk’s devotional pages you’ll find verses that, if read daily, will take you through the entire Bible in a year.

Logical Fallacies

Andreas Kostenberger

Logic (from the Greek word logos, "reason") is the "science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration, the science of the formal principles of reasoning" (Merriam-Webster). While theology, as the study of God, transcends mere logic, it is reasonable to expect that Scripture adheres to common principles of reasoning. Properly used, logic derives true propositions from other true propositions. Even though Scripture may not explicitly state a given truth, we may make true statements that have Scripture's authority behind them if they are properly derived from what Scripture does say following principles of logical reasoning.

A basic understanding of the rules of logic is crucial to sound hermeneutics. Logical fallacies, both formal and informal, are found in every field of study, and biblical exegesis is no exception. In what follows, I will provide examples of some of the most common logical fallacies encountered in biblical studies. They are: (1) false disjunctions, (2) appeals to selective evidence, (3) unwarranted associative jumps, (4) improperly handled syllogisms, (5) false statements, and (6) non sequiturs.

False disjunctions are made when an argument is presented in an either or fashion: either A or B is true, but not both. However, there are times when the answer is "both/and" rather than "either/or." Take the relationship between Galatians 3:28 and 1 Timothy 2:12, for example. It is at times claimed that Paul's assertion in Galatians 3 that in Christ there is "no male and female" eradicates all gender-related distinctions with regard to church ministry, so that the prohibition of women teaching or exercising authority over men in the church in 1 Timothy 2 must be explained as a culturally relative injunction. Both— undifferentiated male-female equality in Christ and limiting authoritative local church offices to men—cannot be true, it is said (or at least implied), so the latter principle must be relativized in such a way that it fits with the former. However, this kind of disjunctive thinking is fallacious. Since 1 Timothy 2:12 is grounded in creation's design and, conversely, the scenario at the fall (vv. 13–14), the passage cannot easily be set aside as culturally bound. More promising is the explanation that Galatians 3:28, in affirming the irrelevance of male-female distinctions with regard to salvation in Christ, is not seeking to address male-female roles in the church at all, so that the passages are pertaining to different (albeit related) topics. Both affirmations are true: men and women are indiscriminately saved by grace through faith in Christ, and the office of elder/overseer is reserved in Scripture for men in keeping with God's creation design.

Appeals to selective evidence are numerous. By definition, we engage in this logical fallacy anytime we only refer to authorities or passages that agree with us on a given issue while failing to account for countervailing evidence or authorities. A specific example comes from the "name it and claim it" theology. In circles that embrace this sort of thinking, it is common to cite Scripture passages that promise answers to prayer for "whatever you ask." For example, in John 14:13–14 Jesus says: "Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it." At other times, Scripture stresses the need for faith on the part of the one who prays (Heb. 11:6; James 1:6). However, people can sustain the name-it-and-claim- it approach only by selective use of evidence while ignoring other passages that put certain constraints on the kinds of prayers God will answer: prayers of disciples who take up their cross and follow Jesus, prayers asking for resources to carry out God's mission in the world, and so on. Such proponents also tend to ignore the mystery of suffering (see, for example, Jesus' comments in Luke 13:1–6), fail to explain why God answers certain prayers but not others (such as for the salvation of loved ones), and neglect to point out that there is no scriptural guarantee that God will answer all prayers for healing.

Unwarranted associative jumps, likewise, are treacherous and lurk at every turn. D.A. Carson, in his excellent book Exegetical Fallacies, cites the classic example of Paul's statement in Philippians 4:13, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." All things? As Carson rightly points out, Paul's statement cannot be legitimately extended to such things as jumping over the moon, integrating complex mathematical equations in one's head, or turning sand into gold.

Certain constraints are brought to bear by the context of Paul's statement in his letter to the Philippians, most importantly the importance of contentment and of being able to deal with both poverty and wealth. Another common example of an associative jump is taking 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people who are called by my name humble themselves . . . ") as directly applying to modern-day democracies when the original point of reference was to Israel as a theocracy.

Improperly handled syllogisms are very common as well. An example of a two-step argument for women serving authoritatively in the church based on the application of the term co-worker (Greek synergos) to both Timothy (Rom. 16:21) and women such as Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3) might look as follows:

Syllogism No. 1:

  1. Timothy is a co-worker of Paul.
  2. Timothy functioned authoritatively in the church.
  3. Therefore, all co-workers of Paul functioned authoritatively in the church.

Syllogism No. 2:

  1. Euodia and Syntyche are co-workers of Paul.
  2. All co-workers of Paul functioned authoritatively in the church (the conclusion of the first syllogism).
  3. Therefore, Euodia and Syntyche functioned authoritatively in the church.

However, there are several problems with this kind of reasoning. Most importantly, the first syllogism is invalid: the conclusion does not properly follow from the premises. That is, if one were to say (1) some A is B and (2) all B is C, then one cannot from these premises categorically conclude that (3) all A is C.

At best, one could seek to work inductively and contend that there is a strong likelihood that all co-workers of Paul functioned (or could function) authoritatively in the church. However, this would be a difficult case to prove, because contextual study of the relevant passages suggests that co-worker in the New Testament is a more flexible term that may indicate various forms of partnership, whether joint ministry, financial support, or other ways of collaboration. In any case, our point here is that arguments based on syllogisms, while common and often having surface appeal, may turn out at closer scrutiny to be fallacious and unsustainable.

False statements are also quite common, though perhaps this category would better be labeled "the use of faulty premises." This fallacy may also be related to the just-mentioned faulty use of syllogisms. Remember, even if a syllogism is formally valid, as we have seen, the conclusion may still be false if one or both of the premises are faulty. An example of this is the common manner of citing Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish," with vision being used to indicate a leader's or group's forward-looking plans, desires, and expectations instead of the prophetic revelation that seems to be in view here. This is wisely brought out by the ESV translation of the verse: "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint" (emphasis added).

While I could continue, I'll close with one of my favorite categories, that of non sequiturs (Latin for "does not [logically] follow"). Many examples could be given, but perhaps most common under this rubric are illegitimate arguments from silence. For example, consider the not-uncommon assertion that the reason why Mark and John don't mention the virgin birth is that they either didn't know about it or, if they did, didn't believe in it. This clearly doesn't follow logically and is both a non sequitur and an illegitimate argument from silence. What about other reasons, such as Mark's desire for concision or John's reference to Jesus' eternal preexistence as the Son of God?

Even more importantly, I'd love to have a nickel for every time I've heard the argument that because Jesus never explicitly addressed the subject of homosexuality, we can safely surmise that He condoned such a practice. This assertion, of course, overlooks the fact that Jesus unequivocally stated, "Have you not read that he who created them [the man and the woman] from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?'" (Matt. 19:4–5). It is hard to infer from this strong affirmation of heterosexual marriage that Jesus condoned same-sex marriage.

These examples highlight the importance of engaging in proper logical reasoning when interpreting Scripture. I don't have space to address numerous other fallacies here, such as those related to emotive appeals, cavalier dismissals, improper analogies, simplistic appeals to authority, fallacies based on equivocal argumentation, and the improper use of obviously and similar expressions. Suffice it to say that every worker who truly desires God's approval in his handling of Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15) will do well to apply himself earnestly to sound principles of logic and proper reasoning.

The Importance of Sound Exegesis

Daniel Doriani

A Bible scholar walks into a friend's kitchen and sees a magnet fixing a diet plan to the refrigerator door. It reads, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you . . . to give you hope and a future' " (Jer. 29:11, NIV). Is his dieting friend interpreting Scripture correctly? The first principle of interpretation is "Read contextually." The Bible scholar thinks to himself, "Does he know that Jeremiah spoke to Israel's leaders in exile in Babylon? That a word spoken to the nation of Israel isn't necessarily a personal promise to individual Christians?" The scholar worries: "Does my friend think God promised to prosper him through this diet plan?" Or does the scholar's training drive him mad? "Maybe my friend simply wants to remember that God is for His people," the scholar reasons, "even him."

We confess that the Bible is God's Word, but unless we read and interpret it properly, our confess ion is a mere formality. Sound biblical exegesis is essential if we hope to know and act upon biblical truth. Sound interpretation has two elements: the technical and the personal. From the technical side, we must first read the Bible according to the grammar and lexicon of the day. It is not sufficient to know what words like flesh, covenant, judge, talent, slave, or justify mean today; we must know what they meant in that day. Second, we must read texts in their literary and cultural contexts.

The frequent command "greet one another with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) illustrates both principles. In the West, we naïvely assume that this kiss is something for first-century people to do, but not for us. But we can't simply disregard a command; we must investigate. When we do, we find the "kiss" entailed a ritual touch of cheeks, not lips, and that it was always man to man or woman to woman, not man to woman. Culturally, the kiss demonstrated friendship, kinship, and affection. Therefore, to obey the command in our culture, we assess how we show loyalty and affection, and practice that. Sound exegesis discovers that the kiss itself is not Paul's concern. Rather, he wants believers to show loyalty and affection in ways that suit each culture.

Serious readers have a threefold question about Bible interpretation: what did it mean, what does it mean, and how does it apply? The question feels most urgent when disciples ask, when do I interpret a statement literally and when do I interpret it figuratively? When must we obey a command literally and when must we not? We answer these questions by studying a passage in its cultural context.

Take the question of head coverings and long hair for women (1 Cor. 11:2–16). Are head coverings the issue in itself, or are they a sign of something? Traditionally, many Christians have taken the prescription for head coverings to be permanently binding. Even today, many insist that the abiding principle of male authority in the home means that women should cover their heads in church. Others, however, argue that hairstyles vary immensely between and within cultures, and they carry variable symbolic weight. America's first presidents wore wigs, and until 1915, most had prominent facial hair. Greco-Roman portraits show that respectable women covered their hair and wore it up, not loose. Today, godly married women ask how their appearance can show respect for their husbands.

A second way to grasp the meaning and application of the Bible is by following the progression of thought in a passage. For example, a woman once told Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!" (Luke 11:27). This praise for Jesus' mother seems odd, but in that culture people believed that women could find greatness by bearing a great son. She meant to bless Jesus by blessing Mary. Jesus' reply is intriguing: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it" (v. 28). The term rather suggests that Jesus means gently to correct her. Rather means "yes, but there is more." Her praise is commendable, yet she subtly diminishes womankind by assuming that a woman finds greatness through connection to a great man. While that is not entirely false, a woman finds true greatness by becoming a faithful disciple. In this case, sound exegesis requires resources. Any thorough commentary will address the cultural factors in Luke 11. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are also great aids.

Proper exegesis in this case also requires that we note the subtle shift marked by the word rather. Careful readers watch for terms that signify a shift in thought. When a passage contrasts ideas, draws conclusions, or makes concessions, we often see terms like but, or, furthermore, yet, since, for, because, then, therefore, so that, and many more.

Biblical discourse frequently makes the main point clear by placing it first or last in a passage or by repeating it (Ps. 103:1–2; James 2:17, 20, 26). But we must read carefully to see how the passage reaches or develops that main point. For example, the theme of Romans 3:21–4:25 is justification by faith alone, but the role of 4:1–8 is not immediately obvious. The phrase just as David also speaks (4:6) shows there is some connection. Reflection shows what the connection is: knowing that one statement of justification by faith won't be enough, Paul illustrates his point through twin heroes of the faith, Abraham and David. The lesson: not even Abraham, with his amazing deeds, was saved by works. And even David, with his terrible sins, was forgiven and justified by faith. If these two are justified by faith alone, all believers are.

We have many excellent books on Bible study methods. Together they answer our common questions. For example, when reading history, we should prefer literal interpretation of Scripture wherein a mountain is a mountain. Yet the teaching of Jesus and the prophets bursts with metaphor, exaggeration, and irony. Jesus asked loaded questions, expecting answers, while refusing to give a straight answer to half the questions people put to Him. Jesus interpreted some parables (Matt. 13:3–43) but lets us puzzle through others (v. 37). Likewise, Revelation occasionally offers hints on the proper interpretation of its symbols (for example, Rev. 12:7–12).

Moses and Paul had a linear, propositional style, but Jesus and most prophets love poems, parables, and analogies that arrest us with their vividness or strangeness and invite us to think. When we read them, a mountain might be a place of rebellion. In that spirit, Jeremiah 51:25 calls Babylon, a city located on a vast plain, a "destroying mountain." Similarly, while most narratives spell out their message, others stretch out for pages without doing so. If we keep our eye on the style or genre of each book, these things become clear. In His wisdom, God chose to hand us cardinal truths such as "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost" (1 Tim. 1:15). But He lets us wrestle our way to other principles.

Occasionally, Jesus chose to be cryptic as a rebuke to those who refused to hear His word or heed His signs (Matt. 13:11–17; see Amos 8:11; John 8:45). Yet the Bible isn't elitist poetry that intends bafflement. God gave us His Word so we could believe in Him, love Him covenantally, and follow Him. John said he recounted Jesus' signs "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30–31).

As we consider rebukes and faith, we enter the personal angle of interpretation. The prophets and Apostles knew their words would encounter rejection and deliberate distortion (Jer. 36:23; 2 Peter 3:16), not just ordinary misunderstanding. Therefore, God tells us that if we read the Bible correctly at the personal level, we will know Him and be conformed to Him. Since He "practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness," we should too (Jer. 9:24; 22:3). We should become more like God in our character and practices (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:32–5:2).

The personal angle explains why the Bible, unlike other books, tells us how to read it. Jesus says we must read holistically, looking for His suffering and glory (Luke 24:25–27; Heb. 2:9; 1 Peter 1:11). Paul says Scripture will "make you wise for salvation" (2 Tim. 3:15). The Psalms command God's people to meditate on the Word to find life (Pss. 1; 19; 119). Proverbs encourages readers to treasure wisdom and find blessing (Prov. 2:1; 7:1). James 1:22 says: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." Paul says we are to read for the spirit rather than the letter of the law (2 Cor. 3:6).

Scripture also tells us how not to read. Jesus often chided Jewish leaders for misreading Scripture, asking, "Have you not read?" (for example, Matt. 12:3–5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 23:31). Jesus did not question their literacy or reading habits. They read Scripture, but failed to grasp its meaning. On four occasions, they missed Scripture's testimony to Jesus. Once, they followed the law's letter and missed its intent.

In Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" (Matt. 19:3). Jesus replied, asking them if they had read that God created mankind male and female, to become one flesh (vv. 4–6). Yet many Pharisees misread, turning regulations intended to restrain divorce into grounds for easy divorce. They missed God's plan—that husband and wife should remain together.

In Matthew 12, the Pharisees again misread when they charged Jesus with breaking the Sabbath by permitting His disciples to pluck grain from fields as they traveled. Had they not read how David and his companions ate consecrated bread, which was unlawful, because they were hungry (v. 3; see 1 Sam. 22)? If they had read Scripture correctly, they would know that God says, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (v. 7; see Hos. 6:6). That means true human need outweighs temple and Sabbath regulations. Further, "One greater than the temple is here" (Matt. 12:6). That is, if priests are permitted to serve in space that represents God's presence, then disciples may do anything necessary to assist Jesus, for He is God's presence.

These cases of misreading demonstrate that sound exegesis requires more than proper methods. We cannot do justice to Scripture unless we realize, as Augustine said, that its final purpose is to increase "the twin love of God and neighbor." Christians read Scripture well when they seek this for themselves and others, and so make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). May we so read and become "faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2).

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