Troublesome Topic: KEY # 1 Learn the Rules of Interpretation

There are two basic, fundamental rules for understanding Scripture; all other aspects of Biblical interpretation fit under these two rules.

1. Do not take the passage out of its context. Much of the misguided teaching heard today stems from not considering the context. People pull a phrase out of a verse and start quoting it with little regard to how it was originally used. Sometimes they seem happy to make it mean whatever they want it to mean.

This rule is not unusual; everyone tells us that we need to pay attention to the context, but not everyone practices it consistently.

2. Seek first the most obvious meaning for the original audience. We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the original audience.

  It was during my time as a missionary in Honduras that I came up with this simplification of the varied rules of interpretation that are often given. Many authors who deal with biblical interpretation have a handful of rules besides the one about context; they have rules about how to deal with poetry, parallelism, hyperbole, symbolism, numerals, etc.  However, I knew I could not throw all that at the pastors I was helping to train because most of them had a very low level of education. Of the 45 men I worked with, two had been through sixth grade, most had been to first or second grade, and about 10 of them had never been to school at all. Do not assume for one moment that these men are not wise just because they are unschooled. Many of them are very wise and I have a high degree of respect for them. I learned that people who cannot read have extra room in their brains to store all kinds of audio files; for example, they remember verbatim conversations that happened years ago while I struggle to remember what I did yesterday. Also many of these men have memorized large portions of the Bible. But despite their wisdom about life and spirituality, their lack of education means that they can easily become overwhelmed by large volumes of information, so I knew I needed to keep it as simple as possible. That is when I realized that this second rule would encompass everything else. Like context, following this rule makes the meaning of a passage more powerful, and there are times when violating this rule causes us to miss the meaning altogether.

Obviously, there are scriptural passages that mean more to us due to an increase in knowledge, such as prophecies that were fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. However, this does not invalidate the rule. Most of the time the perspective of the original audience was not wrong, just incomplete. We understand those prophecies about Jesus more fully than those who heard Isaiah and Jeremiah preach, but we still need to start by seeking the perspective of the original audience.

It is not always easy to get into the mind of someone from a remote culture, in a time far removed from ours. But the degree to which we do so is the degree to which we can understand the Bible correctly, and the degree to which it will come alive for us.

The next lesson is: Key #2 Maintain a Balance Between Perseverance and Imminence