Thrust Statement: Christians should not build their theology on a passage of Scripture in isolation from its context.

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 2:15

            Christians frequently read the Word of God with wooden literalness, and, at the same time, interpret Scriptures in isolation from their context. Through carelessness in  handling the Word of God properly, Christians repeatedly divide over the interpretations of particular Scriptures handed down through the centuries. It is not uncommon for believers to identify long-held interpretations with the Word itself. Within the Christian community, misapplication of Scriptures became normative and was passed on to succeeding generations as authoritative. This composition on the rules of interpretation explores several historical records of the way many Christians seek to strengthen their opinions through the quotation of Scripture. Sir Robert Anderson has correctly stated: “Orthodoxy may thus be maintained by blindly obeying ‘the voice of the Church’ but orthodoxy is not faith, nor is the voice of the Church the Word of God.”[1]

One must be cognizant that the Christian community can be wrong in its interpretation of God’s Word. Some predetermined interpretive grid frequently limits the study of Holy Scripture. Robert K. Johnson says, “The safest way to be sure Scripture supports your position is to ignore those passages you don’t like.”[2] For hundreds of years, Christians have cited the Bible to prove their traditions or opinions about science, about medicine, and about theology. In the distant past, one discovers that Christians rejected the works of Galileo on so-called Biblical citations. But this was just the tip of the iceberg, the Scriptures were not only employed against him, but many Christians also rejected innovations in the medical field through the quotations of Biblical passages. Today numerous Christians justify their intolerance of other Christians through the misapplication of selected and isolated Scriptures.

Unfortunately tradition still governs many of the theological debates today. Many Christians, as stated above, still identify their interpretation of God’s Word with the Word itself.  There are numerous examples where tradition (misapplication of Scripture) took/takes precedence over the Word of God.  One such example is found in the field of medicine. Donald. T. Atkinson (M.D.) wrote an informative book about the rise of medical science and its beginnings in ritual and magic and of the people who freed it from ignorance. Just a perusal of his book reveals the illegal use of Scripture that many theologians and non-theologians relied upon in order to deny medical breakthroughs on unfounded religious claims. In one of his chapters, he went right to the heart of the human mind in its rejection of any new concept (“We have never done it that way before.”), which mental concept is still true not only of science but also of religious thought that differs from one’s own brand of orthodoxy. He calls attention to the devastating effects of tradition on the minds of both men and women with the following insightful analysis:

The most hurtful habit of the human mind is this tendency to cling to traditions that have withstood the moss, rust, and decay of the past. We seem to hold to our old thoughts with a veneration which is as infallible as it is inexplicable. This unhappy mental faculty makes the mind inaccessible to plain reason and leads toward intolerance.[3]


BASIC RULES OF INTERPRETATION

History and Culture

As one seeks to unravel the controversial texts surrounding the Last Supper, one must always bear in mind that hermeneutics (interpretation) is not done in a vacuum. The interpreter generally gives his or her explanation of a passage within his or her own religious culture. In order to interpret the Word of God correctly, one must step outside his or her own spiritual heritage and read the text with fresh eyes. Every individual must seek to exegete the wording in light of its context; one should never read into the passage(s) what one wishes the author to say. One should guard against the common tendency to read into the text one’s own presuppositions. Charles Trombley gives eight rules to apply to a proper interpretation of any document. The following is his list of rules that legal experts employ:

  1. Rule of Definition. Define the term of words being considered and then adhere to the defined meanings.

  2. Rule of Usage. Don’t add meanings to established words and terms. What was the common usage in the cultural and time period when the passage was written?

  3. Rule of Context. Avoid using words out of context. Context must define terms and how words are used.

  4. Rule of Historical Background. Don’t separate interpretation and historical investigation.

  5. Rule of Logic. Be certain that words as interpreted agree with the overall premise.

  6. Rule of Precedent. Use the known and commonly accepted meanings of words, not obscure meanings for which there is no precedent.

  7. Rule of Unity. Even though many documents may be used there must be a general unity among them.

  8. Rule of Inference. Base conclusion on what is already known and proven or can be reasonably implied from all known facts.[4]

The Eucharistic sayings are embodied within a certain history and culture. Since this is so, one must seek from the context the problem(s) that the author sought to deal with. Without an understanding of what was going on at the time of the writing, one cannot expect to arrive at an accurate comprehension. As a result of this failure to consult the full context, these pericopes (units of Scripture) have become some of the most abused texts within the Christian community. Just a casual reading of the religious journals reveals that these pericopes are plastic, that is to say, they are frequently and easily molded into the preconceived ideas of the interpreter, not the intent of the author. The weakness of many interpreters is that one’s presuppositions are often read into the Scriptures rather than being read out of Scripture. Countless Christians tend to confuse their view of Scripture with their own explanation. If someone disagrees with the long-established view of a passage, then that person is unsound, at least, according to some churches. On the surface, what seems plausible as one’s commitment to Scripture is often the commitment to one’s own reading of Scripture.

Isolation of Context

One of the great fallacies in the study of Scripture is reference to Scripture in isolation of its own unique context. There is nothing wrong with quoting Scripture, but one must exert every effort to apply the passage correctly. Numerous Christians labor under the impression that if they can quote a Scripture verbatim, then that settles the matter. But this exact quotation by the reader is not the whole story. If one fails to hear the intent of the author, one fails to pay attention to the Word of God. One should allow the Word of God in its full context to be the final word, not tradition. It is not uncommon for Christians to pick and choose on the basis of their own cultural heritage in their own unique explanation of Scripture. One must learn to reevaluate and reinterpret what has been handed down to him or her from the church leaders. Robert Stein is correct when he writes: “To understand the divine meaning of Scripture, then, is to understand the conscious meaning of God’s inspired servants who wrote them.”[5]

APPLYING SOUND PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION
 

Like any growth, development may be healthy or it may be malignant; discerning the difference between these two kinds of growth requires constant research into the pathology of traditions.  But it is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.[6]

Hayes and Holiday define exegesis as an attempt “to reach an informed understanding of the text.”[7]  It is possible for an interpreter to miss the point of the text if he or she does not consider the “linguistic, cultural, and historical background to the inspired writings,” writes Cedric Johnson.[8]  It is also in this vein that Berkhof cautions Christians not to fall into the same trap that many fell into during the Reformation.  Berkhof again sharpens the focus of caution:

The militant spirit of the age found expression in hundreds of polemical writings.  Each one sought to defend his own opinion with an appeal to Scripture.  Exegesis became the handmaid of dogmatics, and degenerated into a mere search for proof-texts.  The Scriptures were studied in order to find there the truths that were embodied in the Confessions.[9]

Many Christians encounter long-held traditions in their quest to understand the Word of God in its context.[10]  It is not uncommon for believers to identify the traditions of their “interpretative community” with the Word itself. Johnson expresses the basic problem well in his discussion of presuppositions:

Generations of scholars in the field of hermeneutics have recognized the influence of preunderstanding on interpretation.  C. S. Lewis observed,  “What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”[11]

 Untold numbers with whom I have discussed the science of exposition have shared their frustrations and have described their Christian journeys as “Gullible’s Travels.”[12]   Christians often accept what they are taught without question.  It is in this sense that their interpretation is neither subjective nor objective.  In other words, they have never taken the time to employ their minds subjectively in analyzing the Scripture for themselves, nor have they looked at the Scriptures objectively.  Their interpretations are “ready-made or prefabricated meanings.”[13] Their interpretations are hand-me-downs from their interpretative community.  Again, Fish rightly says, “In other words interpretive[14] communities are no more stable than texts because interpretive strategies are not natural or universal, but learned.”[15]  In spite of Fish's deconstruction philosophy,  he is correct when he writes:

And, moreover, the way of seeing, whatever it was, would never be individual or idiosyncratic, since its source would always be the institutional structure of which the “see-er” was an extending agent.  This is what Sacks means when he says that a culture fills brains “so that they are alike in fine detail”; it fills them so that no one’s interpretive acts are exclusively his own but fall to him by virtue of his position in some socially organized environment and are therefore always shared and public.[16]

 Leaders, especially ministers, often memorize verses from the Bible by the hundreds. But their interpretation frequently is not so much theirs, as it is the interpretation of a social structure to which they belong; that is to say, their interpretative community.  Traditions still stand in the way of listening anew to the Biblical text.[17]  Once more, the Gonzalezs’ caution: “We must learn to reevaluate and reinterpret what has been handed down to us.”[18] It is still very difficult for individuals to conceive that one might cite Scripture and, at the same time, fail to apply the text correctly in light of its historical background.

Some religious writers suppose they have all the answers.  And as a result of this kind of intellectualization, the intellectually correct party ostracizes those who go against the grain with their particular interpretative community. It is not uncommon for Christians to justify condemnation over against the so-called nonconformist by citing Matthew 7: 15 out of context, which reads: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” One may quote Matthew 7:15 correctly, but one must also examine the context before drawing conclusions. Today, the body of Christ is divided over the Eucharistic sayings in the Synoptics. When one reads the various accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul, one must consult the context as well as the historical background of the Passover in one’s interpretation of the Lord’s Supper.

            One must be careful that one does not go to the Scriptures to prove what one already believes, but rather to see what they say.  Many are so accustomed to reading the Bible as previously taught by generations of interpreters that they cannot distinguish between interpretation and Revelation.  In other words, for one to question the traditional interpretations is tantamount to questioning the Word of God itself.[19]  This failure to discriminate between explanation and divine inspiration is one of the main obstacles that believers encounter in their efforts to liberate the Bible from its culture and to maintain unity among God’s people.  The heritage of explaining is confused with the text itself.  The faith of the fathers becomes the watchword for orthodoxy; the interpretation of the fathers becomes normative and is passed on as authoritative.

            One of the most difficult obstacles for any Christian is to approach the text without any strong personal biases.  Studying the Bible with colored glasses ultimately leads to distortion of the text.[20]  People often tend to give preconceived beliefs the same authority as they give to the Bible.  In other words, one’s preconceived political power is equal to that of the Scriptures.  One’s own personal journey of faith, with the ghosts of the past, makes it very difficult for one to view the Scriptures without prejudice.  One’s prior understanding and interpretation makes it difficult to sift out the truths of God in dealing with the text.[21]  The culture of one’s heritage controls the text of the Bible. One should never forget that one’s own journey occurs within a vast architecture of preunderstanding—no thinking takes place in a vacuum.  Frederic W. Farrar draws attention to the religious hatred that generates from this know-it-all attitude:

My opinions are founded on interpretations of Scripture.  Scripture is infallible.  My views of its meaning are infallible too.  Your opinions and inferences differ from mine; therefore you must be in the wrong.  All wrong opinions are capable of so many ramifications that any one who differs from me in minor points must be unsound in vital matters also.  Therefore all who differ from me and my clique are “heretics.”  All heresy is wicked; all heretics are necessarily wicked men.  It is my religious duty to hate, calumniate and abuse you.[22]


CONTEXTUAL INTERPRETATION

The first step in explaining Scripture is to read the text.  To fathom a passage involves the immediate context, the remote context, and the larger context.  The immediate context includes verses preceding and following the reference that one is studying.  On the other hand, the remote context may take in the entire book in which the text is found.  Also, the larger context may embrace the whole of God’s written revelation.  This understanding of contexts helps to determine the meaning or meanings that one attaches to any distinct phrase.  Otherwise, the interpreter may impose conjectured convictions on a text without due reflection upon what the author says.  Without a conception of a context, a person’s particular context tends to shape his or her understanding and interpretation of the message. Sidney Greidanus is accurate when he says, “An interpreter must be careful not to read more into a text than is actually there at that particular stage of redemptive history.”[23]

            Merely reciting Scriptures that draw attention to certain party dogmas is not sufficient to determine the meaning of the text. Remember that the context is the determining factor in trying to arrive at a faithful insight.  One must not employ Holy Scripture in a way the Holy Spirit did not employ them.  Leroy Garrett points out with justification that

People tire of our equating our understanding of the word of God with the word of God itself.  This is to say that we must distinguish between revelation and interpretation. Revelation is what God has given us in scripture.  Interpretation is what we conclude the scriptures to mean.  One is divine, the other human.[24]

To use an example as cited above, one may cite Matthew 7:15—“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves”—correctly, but not necessarily speak as the Bible speaks.  One may speak where the Bible speaks and not speak as the Bible speaks. In order to understand this passage of Scripture, it is necessary to study the whole of Matthew’s Gospel before analyzing individual elements. This rule is true in reading from the Synoptics that Jesus “took the cup” (Matthew 26:27). Some believers automatically assume that this means that Jesus and all His disciples drank from a common cup. But is this the case?

A BASIC PRINCIPLE OF INTERPRETATION:

VIEW OF THE WHOLE VERSUS THE PARTICULAR

As one contemplates a study of the whole of the Eucharistic sayings in the Synoptics, it is imperative that one examines the full text of each book before an analysis of its parts.  If a reader explores a specific verse without weighing its sum total, then one’s reflection may radically alter a correct view of a particular text.  Examples of particularization of texts without contexts to support certain dogmatic presuppositions are rampant among many Christians.   We may consider the following isolated Scriptures as examples of frequently cited texts that are misapplied by many sincere Christians to uphold a sectarian spirit that divides the Christian community for which Jesus prayed (John 17). 

It is not uncommon for interpreters to impose their own conceptual grids on a text without due reflection. When one approaches the Word of God, one should approach with a hermeneutics of suspicion.  In other words, one should be conscious of his or her own fallibility in interpreting Scriptures.  One’s interpretation should always remain the object of suspicion and of critical evaluation.  Everyone must have a self-critical stance toward the tendency to impose one’s own agenda upon the exposition of Scripture. 

What is Jesus saying in Matthew 7:15? For many believers, false prophets (7:15) are those who disagree with their brand of orthodoxy or interpretation of Scripture. Also, many appeal to the Scripture (7:13-14) about the small gate and the narrow road to give credence to their particular denominational stance as the only way to heaven.  As a result of literalism, some Christians have even taken the self-mutilation language  (5:29-30) as a call to physical impairment of the body.  Among some religious movements, the turning of the right cheek (5:39) is cited as justification for not defending one’s country in the time of war.  Again, one must ask: what is the context?

One cannot necessarily just take the Scriptures at face value without seeking to understand the intent of the author. Everyone is to employ sound methods of interpretation in seeking to unfold the intended meaning of any text.  One needs to develop the habit of working with the text in order to hear what the original hearers heard.  Hopefully, this exposition will assist one’s understanding of the original setting in order to help remove twenty-first century bifocals and journey back into the first century, to stand upon their threshold, to see through their eyes, and to think their thoughts.  God’s people must seek to read the Bible without colored glasses, which often leads to distortions; one must guard against his or her interpretation as equal to that of Scripture. To accomplish these objectives, it is necessary to learn how to read the Gospel of Matthew and the Pastoral Epistles and the Eucharistic sayings in context.

MORE ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE MISUSE OF SCRIPTURE

Eufame MacLayne: Herb to Relieve Pain in Childbirth

A classic example of the misuse of Scripture is found in the tragic story of Eufame MacLayne (AD 1591). Her story reveals the mindset of literalness and isolation of  Scripture by Christians in the sixteenth century.  Bernard Seeman wrote a book about man’s endeavor to relieve pain in suffering. He recounts the story of Eufame MacLayne who took an herb to lessen her pain during the birth of twins. But according to the church fathers, this action violated the Law of God and was also contempt for the Crown. They based their views on what God had said to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (Genesis 3:16). As a result of a midwife’s (Agnes Sampson) concern for pain, she provided her with the medicine she needed to relieve some of the pain during childbirth. Because Eufame took something to help alleviate her pain, she was brought before the church leaders and condemned to death. She had her twins taken forcibly from her and then she was forcibly chained to a stake and reduced to ashes.[25] This mindset originated with the literal interpretation of Scripture, not its intent.

Sir James Simpson: Chloroform

Seeman also relates another story about the introduction of anesthetics for the release of pain.[26] In 1847, Sir James Simpson, British physician, discovered the anesthetic properties of chloroform.[27] After learning about the success of ether in the United State, he immediately started using this with his patients. As a result of the smell and irritating actions of ether, he looked for a less troublesome anesthetic. He ultimately decided upon chloroform that had been recently discovered by a German chemist, Justus von Leibig.[28] After publishing his results, he came under attack from “fellow physicians, from the clergy, from teachers, from the so-called enlightened and intelligent. Newspapers, magazines and pamphlets joined to loose their arrows at him.”[29] Andrew White wrote:

From pulpit after pulpit Simpson’s use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abundantly, the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was “to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.” Simpson wrote pamphlet after pamphlet to defend the blessing which he brought into use; but he seemed about to be overcome, when he seized a new weapon, probably the most absurd by which a great cause was ever won: “My opponents forget,” he said, “the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of Genesis; it is the record of the first surgical operation ever performed, and that text proves that the Maker of the universe, before he took the rib from Adam’s side for the creation of Eve, caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.”[30]

Why was there such a vivacious attack against this professor of Obstetrics at the University of Glasgow, Scotland? Seeman says, “At the core of the attacks was the belief that the use of anesthesia in labor was an attempt to contravene the decrees of Providence, hence reprehensible and heretical.”[31] Numerous individuals objected to anesthesia in labor for childbirth as an attempt to circumvent the Genesis mandate: “with pain you will give birth to children” (Genesis 3:16). Since Dr. Simpson was well versed in logic and theology, he examined the objections on religious as well as scientific grounds. In his defense, he exposed his critics with the following words:

Were the curse in Genesis to be accepted literally, as the defenders of pain were doing, then a man sinned each time he eased his labor by using an ox, a plow or even fertilizer to enrich the soil. Any labor-saving device was as much in contravention of the Lord’s curse as pain-saving anesthetic.[32]

Boyer: Inoculation Against Smallpox

            One must exercise caution that he or she does not isolate a passage from its context. Boyer, early in the nineteenth century, presented inoculation as a preventive of smallpox in France. Not long after this introduction of vaccination, theologians were soon finding reasons against the innovative practice. Rev. Edward Massey published (1772) a sermon entitled: “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation.”[33] The Theologians argued that the disease of smallpox, as well as other diseases, was “sent by Providence for the punishment of sin; and the proposed attempt to prevent them is ‘a diabolical operation.’”[34] Another preacher, Rev. Mr. Delafaye, also preached a sermon with the title: “Inoculation and Indefensible Practice.”[35] White writes: “The same opposition was vigorous in Protestant Scotland. A large body of ministers joined in denouncing the new practice as ‘flying in the face of Providence,’ and ‘endeavouring to baffle a Divine judgment.’”[36]

            Another physician, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, in 1721, inoculated his son. As a result of this experiment, he encountered bitter hostility. Another physician, Dr. Douglas, a Scotch, insisted that inoculation was “poisoning.” The opposing party urged the authorities to try Dr. Boylston for murder. Again, White discloses the inner thoughts of the radicals: “That the smallpox is ‘a judgment of God on the sins of the people,’ and that ‘to avert it is but to provoke him more’; that inoculation is ‘an encroachment on the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and smite.’”[37] Many Scriptures were employed to bolster their claims against smallpox and inoculations.  In their arsenal of isolated Scriptures, they also cited Hosea 6:1 to justify their negative reaction, which reads: “ He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.” This Scripture was torn out of its context to give credence to their presuppositions founded upon an illegal use of Scripture.  They used this Scripture as their means of justification against using means of healing for any disease, not just smallpox.[38]

How did they prove their presuppositions? By isolating Scriptures from their context, they were able to prove to the masses that they were right.       In the evolution of medicine, one also encounter’s Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. One of his professional colleagues, Dr. Moseley, in opposition to vaccination, wrote a title page for his book: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[39] In 1798 physicians and clergymen sought to suppress vaccination as “bidding defiance to Heaven itself, even to the will of God” by forming an Anti-vaccination Society.[40] But eventually right reason gained the day.

Dr. Ignatz Philipp Semmelweis: Childbed Fever

            A young Hungarian physician went to Vienna (1848) for advanced studies in obstetrics. This hospital provided him with firsthand studies dealing with childbirth. This hospital frequently put new cases into the beds of those who had just died with the “Childbed Fever” without changing the bedding. He soon discovered that one out of every ten births left the baby motherless. Many reasons were associated with the sudden death of the mothers. One physician, Meigs of Philadelphia, one of the greatest obstetricians of his time, attributed the deaths to “Justification of Providence; a judgment instituted to remind us of the sin committed by the mother of the race.”[41]  Dr. Semmelweis performed post-mortems to try to determine the cause of death. But this resulted in no visible means of determining the cause of death.

            He left Vienna and went to Venice as a discouraged, overworked, and nervous individual. A few weeks later, he returned to Vienna and discovered doctors performing an autopsy on the body of Dr. Kolletschka, who had just died from septicemia (invasion of the blood-stream by virulent microorganisms—blood poisoning) as a result of a wound he had received in the dissecting room. This triggered his memory in the recall of deaths that were much higher in one section of the hospital than another over which the midwives were delivering babies. As he reflected upon this problem, he then realized that the doctors who performed autopsies left the dissected bodies to deliver babies without washing their hands. As a result of this discovery, he had all his students to wash their hands with a solution of chloride of calcium before delivery. The death rate plummeted. Thus, this discovery transformed a theory into fact.

            As a result of this find, he wrote a book, The Cause, Concept, and Prophylaxis of puerperal Fever, “a work that would one day revolutionize the science of obstetrics.”[42] Since his findings did not coincide with the traditional ideas, he was persecuted. In Austria, he was bitterly opposed by two individuals—Scanzoni and Carl Braun—along with leading obstetricians. As stated above, many physicians contributed the childbed fever to “bad ventilation, to bad water, to improper food, and to disordered psychic states. Yet, by the older and more devout physicians it was thought to be the result of the Edenic curse.”[43] The “Edenic curse” would be Genesis 3:16. During the early part of 1865, the criticism became so severe that Dr. Semmelweis became insane. Physical disease set in and in November he died.  Did he die for nothing? No! Later, the work that he did laid the groundwork for “Pasteur’s discovery of the role played by microorganisms in the production of fermentation.”[44] Later, the renowned surgeon, Joseph Lister, saw the principle of antiseptic surgery initiated by Dr. Semmelweis and proclaimed Semmelweis as his forerunner.[45] Once more, one can see the devastating effects of one’s misuse of the Bible; it wreaks havoc upon God’s creation

Jesus’ Confrontation With Satan

A classic example of context is Jesus confrontation with Satan. Scripture citations came from both Satan and Jesus. Matthew’s record of Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness is a masterpiece of how not to interpret Scripture and how to interpret Scripture. It is one thing to quote Scripture and another thing to give the intent of the passage. Matthew’s account reveals Satan citing Psalm 91:11-12 to Jesus in order to bolster his claim that Jesus could jump from “the highest point of the temple” (Matthew 4:5). Satan quoted the Scriptures accurately, but he did not look at the intent. Jesus also cited another Scripture to Satan to demonstrate that he had incorrectly interpreted this section of the Psalm. Jesus cited Deuteronomy 6:16 to illustrate that one cannot pit one Scripture against another Scripture. The following chart sets forth Psalm 91:11-12 and Satan’s citation of Psalm 91:11-12 in Matthew 4:6:

Psalm 91:11-12

Matthew 4:6

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; 12 they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

 

For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ b[46]

 


Give to One Who Asks

Another example from the Sermon on the Mount should help to drive home the necessity of context before building one’s theology upon an isolated passage. Should one interpret Matthew 5:42 literally? Jesus says, “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (5:42). Can Christians utilize discretion in giving money to others who ask? How many Christians interpret this passage literally? Did Paul contradict Jesus when he wrote the following to the Thessalonians: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat’” (1 Thessalonians 3:10)? Again, how should one interpret the following words: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39)? Does God expect someone to interpret this literally? If someone should hit you in the head with a baseball bat, does God expect you to stand up—provided it does not kill you—and say, “Well, hit me on the other side”? The reason for stressing these matters is to call attention to the necessity of interpreting according to meaning.[47] Understanding of these principles of interpretation should also help one to discard so much tradition placed upon 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

Amos 6:5 Versus 2 Chronicles 29:25

            Another illustration of how some Christians misapply a Scripture in order to maintain their disapproving views toward the use of instruments in the corporate praise assembly. Amos 6:5 is applied by many believers to prove that God did not approve of David’s command to use instruments of music in praise to God.[48] I, too, cited Amos 6:5 the first seventeen years of my ministry to prove that God condemned David for introducing instrumental music into the Old Testament worship. I had to revise my earlier position—a position that I was taught as a teenager—when I discovered a passage in which God commanded David to use instruments. I then recognized that whatever Amos was saying, he could not be saying what I said he said. The following chart should put this misapplication in proper perspective:

2 Chronicles 29:25

Amos 6:5

He stationed the Levites in the temple of the Lord with cymbals, harps and lyres in the way prescribed by David and Gad the king’s seer and Nathan the prophet; this was commanded by the Lord through his prophets.

 

You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments

 

If one employs Amos 6:5 to condemn the use of instruments, one fails to take into consideration the context of this passage. One cannot nullify 2 Chronicles 29:25 with Amos 6:5.

CONCLUSION

As one approaches the interpretation of any text, one should never attack the sincerity of those who follow a path that is not in keeping with the context—many of whom are no doubt good and godly men and women—but there is still a need to guard against an interpretation that does not ring true to the Biblical revelation itself. When an interpreter seeks to understand the part (isolated text), he or she must first seek to understand the whole (the entire book). Robert Stein correctly says, “The way an author helps his readers understand the meaning he seeks to convey is through context.”[49] When one studies the Eucharistic sayings, one must understand the historical background of the Passover, especially since the Last Supper occurred during this annual feast.

 

           



[1] Sir Robert Anderson, The Lord From Heaven: A Study of the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1914), 88.

[2] Robert K. Johnson, Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 64.

[3] Donald T. Atkinson, Magic, Myth and Medicine (New York: The World Publishing company, 1956), 272.

[4] Charles Trombley, Who Said Women Can’t Teach? (South Plainfield, NJ: Bridge Publishing, Inc., 1985), 135-136.

[5] Robert H. Stein, A Basic guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 28.

[6] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 60.

[7] John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook, Revised Edition (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1987), 23..

[8] Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 20. See Appendix V, Dallas Burdette, “Passover Traditions in the First Century,” for an example of the application of the above principles—“linguistic, cultural, and historical background.”

[9] L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), 28-29.

[10] See John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook, Revised Edition (Atlanta, Georgia: John Knox Press, 1987), 66, where they write:

 

The best guide to the meaning of a word is the context in which it is used.  This means, first of all, the immediate context of the passage in which it occurs.  If a word has several meanings, one should explore the range of meanings and see how they fit or do not fit in the context.  A broader context is the whole of the document in which the terms appear.  One should explore how a term is used and what it denotes elsewhere in the document.

[11] Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation , 45.

[12] See Dallas Burdette, “My Pilgrimage of Faith” [ON-LINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net [accessed 19 July 2005], located under PERSONAL, in which I develop the evolution of my thinking in my Christian journey.  This article is informative in that I discuss basic principles of how to interpret.  This essay discusses many of the “pit falls” that I encountered on my spiritual journey as a boy preacher.  To a great extent, my earlier spiritual journey could be described as “Gullible’s Travels.”

[13] Stanley Fish, Is There A Text in This Class? (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1980), 172.

[14] Fish does not use “interpretative community” but “interpretive community.”

[15]  Ibid.  I disagree with Fish’s philosophy of the text being unstable.  If I understand Fish correctly, he is a deconstructionist in his philosophy.  See Morner and Rausch, “Deconstructive Criticism,”  NTC’s Dictionary, 50-51, where they explain “deconstruction”:

An approach to LITERARY CRITICISM based on the views and procedures of the French thinker Jacques Derrida.  Deconstructive criticism utilizes reader-centered theories of meaning that ignore reference to the author’s intention and deny the possibility of a terminate meaning or “correct” interpretation for any text.  Deconstructive criticism makes possible innumerable contradictory but “undecidable” meanings.  First becoming prominent in the 1970s, deconstructive criticism is central to POST-STRUCTURALISM.

[16]  Ibid., 335.

[17] See Justo L. Gonzalez and Catherine G. Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching: The Pulpit and the Oppressed (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 48-68.

[18]  Ibid., 31.

[19]  For an insightful article on the differentiation between Revelation and interpretation, see Leroy Garrett, “It Means What It Says,” Restoration Review 17, no. 4 (April 1975) : 68-71.

[20] See Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation, 42, where he captures, in concise language, the subjective biases of all interpreters:

 

My contention is that conflicting theological positions are in part due to the fact that we all approach a text, sacred or secular, with our strong subjective biases.  Even though we have a commitment to read the Bible on its own terms: and even though we want the Divine and human authors to speak for themselves, somehow we still come up with contradictory views on some issues.

[21]  For an excellent presentation of this concept, see Gonzalez and Gonzalez, “Difficulties in Hearing the Text,” in Preaching, 29-47.

[22] Frederick W. Farrar, “Religious Hatred,” quoted in Carl Ketcherside, Mission Messenger 27, no. 6 (June 1965): 92.

[23]  Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 71.

[24] Garrett, “It Means What It Says,”  69.

[25] Bernard Seeman, Man Against Pain: 3000 Years of Effort to Understand and Relieve Physical Suffering (Philadelphia: Chilton Company, 1962), 96. See also Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science With theology in Christendom, vol., 2 (New York: George Braziller, 1955), 62, 63. Volumes 1 and 2 are combined in one volume. See also Dr. Donald T. Atkinson, Magic, Myth and Medicine (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1956), 271-272, in which he too recounts this tragic story:

 

Looking down on the new beautiful Princes Street of Edinburgh, Scotland, is Castle Hill. Here in 1591 a crime was committed which illustrates the old-time psychology. Up this hill, one bleak morning, was forcibly dragged Eufame MacLayne, a lady of rank and refinement. A few minutes before, she had clung desperately to her twin babies, but these had been torn from her by the crown bailiff. At the summit a stake had been driven in the ground and around it wood had been piled. As she knelt, chains were wrapped around her body and in less than an hour ashes was all that remained of Eufame MacLayne. This execution was not the result of mob violence, for the victim had been tried by due process of law and had been convicted. Evidence was advanced which proved that she had employed a midwife, “one Agnes Sampson to administer unto her a certain medicine for the relief of pain in childbirth contrary to divine law and in contempt of the crown.”

 

Eufame MacLayne’s fate had been sealed by precedent. Convention had make it an insult to the Deity to assist a woman in labor. This was a crime which always drew the extreme penalty in medieval Europe. In 1521 Viethes, a Hamburg physician, was arrested for attempting to mitigate the pains of labor. By nature Viethes was generous and kind, and his patient, a frail woman, begged for relief. Her entreaties reached the heart of this good man and he complied with her request. Immediately the wheels of the law began to turn and a conviction was soon obtained for the crown. A few weeks later an unusual light shone one night over Hamburg. They were burning Dr. Viethes.

[26] Ibid., 122-125. See also Andrew D. White,  Ibid., 62, 63.

[27] See Monica Winefryde Furlong, “Anesthesia,” in Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia 2003 (CD Deluxe). © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation.

[28] Seeman, Man Against Pain, 122.

[29] Ibid., 123, 124.

[30] Andrew White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Vol., 2 (New York: George Braziller, 1955), 63.

[31] Ibid., 123.

[32] Ibid., 125.

[33] Ibid., 55.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 55, 56.

[36] Ibid., 56.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 58.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Donald T. Atkinson, Magic, Myth and Medicine, 274.

[42] Ibid., 276.

[43] Ibid., 274.

[44] Ibid., 277.

[45] Ibid.

[46]All citations are from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), unless stated otherwise.

[47] For examples of hyperbole (bold exaggeration for emphasis), see Dallas Burdette, “Divorce Sayings in the Synoptics and Paul,” and “Biblical Situation Ethics and Graded Absolutism” [ON-LINE]. Available from http://www.freedominchrist.net [accessed 22 July 2005], located under caption SERMONS AND ESSAYS and then under the subheading DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE.

[48] See Goebel Music, “The New Testament Commands Us to Use Old Testament Psalms,” The Spiritual Sword 10, Number 1 (October 1978): 22-27. 

[49] Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 57.