January 02, 2004

Interpreting the Bible

While doing some unrelated research, I copied this passage down from one of my parents' books while on Christmas break: The plain Truth About Armstrongism by Roger R. Chambers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972) pp. 83-86. The error of Armstrongism is long gone from the Worldwide Church of God, but these principles of Biblical interpretation are still practical and necessary. False prophets still offer the hidden "key" to understanding the Bible, whether it is the British-Israelism of Herbert W. Armstrong, or the "right divisions" of C. I. Scofield.

Footnotes are as in the original; boldface emphases are added by me. Any typos are strictly my own.

An understanding of sound principles of Biblical interpretation will keep a man out of Armstrongism. As opposed to the many keys offered by a long line of false prophets, the following universally available, common sense principles of interpretation make God's propositional revelation open to all, without benefit of clergy.

  1. Faith in Christ. If one rejects the Christ of the Scripture, he will be prejudiced in the choice of the meaning of words and significance of deeds and thoughts.2
  2. Respect for the Bible as the Word of God. The question of the reliability of Scripture is one; the question of the meaning of Scripture is another. When one has settled the question, from available evidence, of the inspiration of Scripture, he is then in a position to correctly intepret the content of Scripture.
  3. Harmonious with the whole. Truth is always consistent with truth. If a particular interpretation violates other parts of the revelation, then that interpretation is at fault.
  4. Literal unless otherwise indicated. The interpreter who wishes to read into a passage more of his own interests, will shy away from a literal treatment of the Bible. The duty of the interpreter is to determine the original intent of the author. A passage will be taken literally unless it, or portions of it, were not originally meant for it to be so understood.
  5. Figurative if obvious. Because the Bible deals with things beyond human experience or comprehension, figurative or symbolic language is necessary.
  6. Meaning from the context. The context may be adjoining verses, chapters, other Books, or the whole Bible itself. This principle is a preventative from "proof-texting."
  7. Retention of the spirit. Words are simply vehicles to carry ideas. It is "letterism" and not "literalism" that destroys the spirit of the content of Scripture by loading more ideas upon the words than they were meant to carry.
  8. Preserving the proper emphasis. A truth overemphasized can easily become error. The content of divine revelation has proportion and balance. For instance, the emphasis of the Bible is upon Jesus Christ and the cross. The emphasis of Armstrongism is upon the "government of God."
  9. Verification of interpretation. Nothing must be allowed to replace the Bible itself. But dictionaries, atlases, commentaries, introductions, background works, lexicons, and so forth, can contribute to each person's skill in Biblical interpretation.
  10. Application to self. Without this, Biblical interpretation becomes mere academic exercise.

Beyond the solid principles of Biblical interpretation which apply to all kinds of Scriptural material, particular principles must be recognized in the handling of futuristic prophecy.

  1. Prophecy can be infallibly interpreted only by an inspired interpreter. In I Corinthians 2:1-10 Paul affirms this principle.
  2. It is not an issue of "literalism" versus "spiritualism." The question is whether the original, intended meaning of a given prophecy has a temporal or spiritual fulfillment. If a prophecy has a spiritual meaning, then the spiritual or figurative application of it is a literal fulfillment.
  3. If an inspired New Testament speaker or writer affirms that a certain prophecy is fulfilled in a certain way, that should settle the matter.
  4. If Old or New Testament events have already fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, then those same prophecies cannot be changed to mean a future fulfillment.
  5. If prophecies that Scripture links to certain events are not fulfilled in those events, then those events fulfill nothing.
  6. To speak of the postponement of prophecy is nonsense. No prophecy can be taken centuries later to have a fulfillment in a way and at a time other than that which was intended when the prophecy was spoken or written. To say a fulfillment is deferred because of prevailing circumstances is to say that the prophecy is wrong,3, and makes a false prophet out of the one making it. A prophecy cannot be wrong about time and right in every other detail. It deprives the prophecy of the element of inspiration. Prophecy then becomes mere prediction. If circumstances force the postponement of fulfillment, then there is no assurance that circumstances will permit fulfillment at a later time.
  7. New Testament writers and speakers do not always quote the full prophecy or even quote verbatim. Often a paraphrase is used. Enough is given, however, so that one may know the source of the prophecy being explained.
  8. "Before His birth, and during the early part of His ministry, it was emphasized that Christ came to do a spiritual work, and that the cross was before Him from the very beginning. Any theory of the interpretation of prophecy which does not take these two facts into consideration is unscriptural."4

This last principle is critical. It is decisive. It is Scriptural:

Having therefore obtained the help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those things which the prophets and Moses did say should come: That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:22-23).

2 Lewis Foster, "Biblical Interpretation and Contemporary Thought," The Restoration Herald (Cincinatti, Ohio, May, 1968), pp. 12-13. The list of ten basic principles here is essentially the one detailed by Foster.

3 See Foy E. Wallace Jr., God's Prophetic Word (Oklahoma City: Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Publications, 1960). Wallace enunciates sound principles in detail.

4 James D. Bales, The New Testament Interpretation of Old Testament Prophecies of the Kingdom (Searcy, Ark.: Harding College Press, 1950) p. 1.