Section #2-Three basic principles of interpretation (this section is largely drawn from chapter 7 of John Stott’s book, “Understanding The Bible.”): Stott writes, “It is often said by our critics, especially by those who know what a high view of Scripture we take, that ‘you can make the Bible mean anything you like’. They are probably thinking of non-Christian and semi-Christian cults which support their particular opinions by an arbitrary selection and interpretation of proof texts. But the New Testament itself condemns those who ‘tamper with God’s word’ and ‘twist’ it to suit their own purposes. To those who accuse us of this, I always reply: ‘You are quite right. You can make the Bible mean anything you like—if you are unscrupulously honest in your approach to the Bible and in your use of sound principles of interpretation, far from your being able to manipulate Scripture, you will find Scripture controlling and directing you’. What, then, are these sound principle of interpretation?”
1. The Natural Sense-the principle of simplicity: Stott says, "One of our basic Christian convictions is that ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.’ That is to say, it is as much the nature of God to reveal Himself as it is the nature of light to shine. Now God has revealed Himself chiefly by speaking. We may be quite sure, therefore, that He has spoken in order to be understood, and that He has intended Scripture (the record of the divine speech) to be plain to its readers. For the whole purpose of revelation is clarity not confusion, a readily intelligible message, not a set of dark and mysterious riddles….[However] It is true that in some matters Scripture is not as plain as in others. This is apparent from the fact that, although devout and careful students of the Bible, deeply concerned to submit to its authority, enjoy a very wide measure of agreement on the great fundamentals of historic Christianity, they still disagree on some points.” Here are some truths to guide us in discovering the natural sense:
A. Since God chose to speak to us in ordinary human language, we must know what the words mean, paying attention to the normal rules of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
B. We are, first and foremost, looking for the obvious and natural meaning of the words. Stott writes, “In Sir Charles Odgers’ standard book on the interpretation of legal deeds and documents his third rule is that ‘words are to be taken in their literal meaning.’ Unless the subject-matter shows otherwise, he writes, ‘the plain, ordinary meaning of the words used is to be adopted in constructing a document’.”
C. That does not mean that the natural meaning is always literal. It can be figurative at times.
D. We are to look for the natural sense, and usually common sense will guide us to know if it is literal or figurative.
2. The Original Sense-the principle of history: Stott writes, “We have seen in earlier chapters that God chose to reveal Himself in a precise historical context. Although His self-revelation is addressed to every man of every age and every country, each part of it was addressed in the first instance to a particular people of a particular age in a particular country. Therefore, the permanent and universal message of Scripture can be understood only in the light of the circumstances in which it was originally given. It would obviously be very to misleading to read back into Scripture the notions of a later age…So as we read the Bible, we need to keep asking ourselves: what did the author intend to convey by this? What is he actually asserting? What will his original hearers have understood him to have meant?”
A. The Situation
B. The Style
C. The Language
3. The General Sense-the principle of harmony: Stott writes, “From a human standpoint the Bible is a symposium with a wide assortment of contributors. From the divine standpoint, however, the whole Bible emanates from one mind. It is the word of God expressing the mind of God, and so possesses an organic unity. For this reason we must approach Scripture with the confidence both that God has spoken and that, in speaking, He has not contradicted Himself.
Sir Charles Odgers, in the book mentioned earlier, gives as his seventh rule for interpreting legal documents ‘the deed is to be construed as a whole’. He goes on:
‘The deed must be read and interpreted as a whole in order to extract the meaning of any particular part or expression… Every part of the deed ought to be compared with the other and one entire sense ought to be made thereof… Every part of it may be brought into action in order to collect from the whole one uniform and consistent sense, if that may be done… The words of each clause should be so interpreted as to bring them into harmony with the other provisions of the deed if that interpretation does no violence to the meaning of which they are naturally susceptible’.
As with legal documents, so with the Biblical text we should seek to resolve apparent discrepancies and interpret Scripture as one harmonious whole. This will lead us to interpret Scripture by Scripture, especially what is obscure by what is plain, and never so to ‘expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another’.” The key is context, context, context.
A. Immediate Context
B. Context Of That Particular Book
C. Overall Context Of The Entire Bible