Rightly Dividing the Word

Some contend that the Bible is so plainly written that it requires no interpretation, while others contend that it is so difficult to comprehend that it’s dangerous to leave people to understand the Bible on their own. This latter argument has been used by certain cults and the Roman Catholic Church to keep people from in-depth study of the Bible. The Bible, however, was given to be read by every man and every man should endeavour to study it to know its meaning while praying for the Holy Spirit’s enlightenment. It is true, however, that the Bible is to be read and interpreted with due care. Here are a few basic pointers to follow when interpreting God’s word.

Avoid extremes

The first requirement is to avoid extremes. In his opening sentence in his book, “Interpretation of the Scriptures,” Arthur W. Pink states, “Man is notoriously a creature of extremes and nowhere is that fact more evident than in the attitude taken by different ones to this subject.”

When it comes to handling the truth of God’s word, the truth is usually in the middle, just as there is a ditch on each side of the road. This is not compromise, or a method of avoiding stark statements which are unpalatable to the modern man. This rule applies to reconciling seemingly opposing statements within the inspired word of God. The Bible clearly teaches God’s sovereignty, but it also clearly teaches man’s responsibility. Many statements of scripture address only one of these subjects at a time without addressing the other. That does not rule out the need to balance single references to God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility. Because one text of scripture states that one is true does not mean that the other is not true.

Let clear statements interpret the not so clear

The second thing to note is that we should study particular statements of scripture according to the analogy of faith. That means that we should bring all the revelation of the Bible to bear on specific statements. Let the passages of scripture which are clear interpret those passages which are unclear.

This is the advice given in our Westminster Confession of faith, which states, “The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

“The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1 sections 9 & 10).

This statement shows that every reader of the word of God is an interpreter. He is not merely to string along various texts to bolster his private opinions. Rather, the passage of scripture should mould the Bible student’s thinking.

Keep things in context

Third, in Bible interpretation we should thoroughly study the context. The immediate context is the sentence, or paragraph in which the words are written. The grammar of the sentence, or paragraph, controls the right use of the word itself. Bible students must not do as unscrupulous journalists often do to the statements of politicians. The mischievous reporter will look for little sound-bites and then draw warped conclusions by presenting them out of context. For a Bible student to do that would be the same as to take the scissors to the Bible to extract statements rendering them meaningless. Sadly, taking Bible words out of context is much too common, both in private Bible reading and in the public exposition of the word.

Grammar rules

So, context matters and grammar also matters. Bible study is not a game of Scrabble where you are at liberty to shift letters and words around at will. In Bible interpretation, the word order, or syntax, is all important. Verb tenses can also make all the difference in the meaning of any statement.

The Bible student is not to be fearful of interpreting the word of God when he applies right principles of Bible study. He will, however, tremble at the meaning of God’s word itself. The Lord said through the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” We should, then, receive God’s word with faith and pray for a heart to obey the Lord speaking to us through His word.

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By Ian Goligher

Rev. Ian Goligher is the pastor of Cloverdale FPC, Vancouver, BC. He was Editor of Current from 2014 to 2019.