Traditional versus Dispensational Interpretation

The traditional method of Scriptural interpretation used by Protestants is well summed by the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689), Chapter 1, Article 9:

Historic Baptist/Protestant View

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 by other places that speak more clearly.

Viewed from another vantage point is Augustine’s oft quoted saying that “the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and that the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed“.

According to Plan (Goldsworthy)

One small modern book that teaches Bible students how to study the Bible in light of the full revelation of Christ is Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Goldsworthy highlights the key events of the Bible, such as creation, the fall, the promises to Noah, the call of Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt to Israel, the giving of the law, the wilderness temptation, the conquest of Canaan, the beginning of the monarchy, the Exile of Israel to Babylon, the prophetic promises, the coming of Christ, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the future consummation. He does so in a way which emphasizes that all of Scripture points to Christ and finds its ultimate fulfillment in Him.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
(Luke 24:25-27)

In his own words:

“In doing biblical theology as Christians, we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it is all leading. Rather we first come to Christ, and he directs us to study the Old Testament in the light of the gospel” (According to Plan, pg 55)

Dispensationalism

There is a modern system of interpretation that finds itself threatened by this approach to Scripture. An example of this school is Dr. Keith Essex, graduate of Dallas Seminary and professor at The Masters Seminary (associated with radio personality John MacArthur).

Dr. Essex takes particular exception to the preceeding quote from Goldsworthy. He strongly disagrees with the approach that the New Testament can be used as an interpretive aid in understanding the Old. Says Dr. Essex: “In contrast to Goldsworthy, the present reviewer would affirm that biblical theology should proceed from Genesis 1 and OT prophecies should be understood literally.

Literal Interpretation: But What Does It Mean?

Now, all conservative Bible students agree that the Bible should be interpreted ‘literally’; but only IF by ‘literally’ we mean in a normal and natural way (contra allegoricalism). But, this is not ALL the Dispensationalist means when he says ‘literal’. By literal, the Dispensationalist means that the Old Testament prophecies were intended to be understood by first generation of hearers entirely within their own historical context and culture. Given this interpretive grid, the reader must understand that all Old Testament prophecy must be comprehended (and must find their fulfillment) within the context of Old Covenant Temple Judaism without regard for future revelation or fulfillment.

Errors of Dispensationalism

The errors of this method are that it assumes that: 1) the original hearers were intended to fully understand the mysteries of God revealed to them, and 2) that we can only understand the Scriptures by understanding this original historical context.

Response to Dispensationalism

According to the Apostle Paul, Gentiles during the Old Covenant were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise” (Eph 2:12). But now that Christ has come, believing Gentiles are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). In these verses, the apostle is revealing that Gentiles can be (“contrary to nature”, Rom 11:24) fellow citizens of Israel and of the one people of God.

The Dispensationalist simply will not (cannot) accept this! If the Dispensational Bible student believes that Israelite hearers under the Old Covenant would have understood God’s promises to Israel to exclude Gentiles, then no later revelation can include them. For Dispensationalists, the Old has a sort of logical priority over the new.

Mystery

The Apostle continues into chapter 3, writing of the same theme. He states:

…by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.
(Eph 3:3-6)

According to Paul, the things he himself wrote about Gentiles being engrafted into Israel were a mystery in “other ages” and were “not made known to the sons of men”. If indeed these matters were a mystery under the Old Covenant, it should only make rational sense that we would not try to understand them fully there.

Wrap-Up

The further issue I have with Dispensationalism is with the arrogant assumption that we can create models of interpretation, that if followed, allow us to fully understand Old Testament prophecy as the original hearers understood it. Not only is this arrogant, but within this there is a false assumption that everything revealed in Scripture was even intended to be fully comprehended by the generation that received it (a denial of mystery). In the end, I think our forefathers had it right. We should let the final and fuller revelation interpret the shadowy and less clear.

For more, see Problems in Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism and Ephesians.

Interpreting Galatians

Tom Schreiner has re-released an updated edition of his work: Interpreting the Pauline Epistles. I’m working through the book as I study the Epistle to the Galatians.

Literary Genre: Letter

In the first chapter, Dr. Schreiner briefly discusses different literary genres, and concludes, obviously, that the 13 epistles of Paul are of the ‘letter genre’. Paul’s epistles:

    • Are occasional in nature,
    • and, they address specific problems,
    • but, are not modeled after literary Greek rhetoric,
    • nor are simply crude personal correspondence

In fact…

  • They are not simple throw-away letters by which had no intention of being re-read or passed around. They are written in a careful structured style and are written in an authoritative manner
  • Paul wrote with apostolic authority and expected his words to be read/obeyed

1 Corinthians 14:37 (KJV) – If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

1 Thessalonians 5:27 (KJV) – I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren.

2 Thessalonians 3:14 (KJV) – And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Colossians 4:16 (KJV) – And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea.

Thus, Paul wrote with authority, and expected the things he wrote to passed about and obeyed as the Words of God.

I was hoping Dr. Schreiner might have more to say regarding whether he considered some, none, or all of Paul’s writings to be epistles (versus letters), but he said little to nothing about the contrast between the two. See my writing on the topic in the following posts:

What is an Epistle?
What is an Epistle?, part 2

Structure of the Letter

Later in the first chapter, Dr. Schreiner overviews the structure of a Greco-Roman letter, comprised of 3 main sections: Opening, Body, and Closing.

Opening

Greco-Roman letters have 4 primary ingredients as a part of a letter opening: sender, recipient, Greeting, Prayer.

Sender – There is significance in the various titles (servant, apostle, etc.) that Paul uses to describe himself in his letters. In Galatians, he uses the following title:

“Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)…”

Perhaps, here, Paul is trying to emphasize his apostolic authority right off the bat, the issue which he spends considerable space defending in this epistle. He emphasizes that his apostleship is not from/through man, but Jesus Christ and God the Father.

Recipient“…To the churches of Galatia…”

Greeting – Typical Greek letters began with the word χαίρειν (greetings), but Paul normally uses χάρισ ῾υμίν (grace to you). In Galatians, Paul uses “...Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ…”.

Prayer – Hellenistic letters often wished the reader health and then included a prayer to the gods. According to Schreiner*, only Galatians and Titus lack a prayer. In Galatians, in particular, once the Apostle has introduced himself and wished God’s blessing upon his hearers, he jumps right into the matter at hand, “…I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel…’

*In a cursory reading of the openings of several of the Pauline letters, these elements can all be clearly distinguished, except for the prayer (in my opinion). Though the Apostle does mention that he regularly thanks God for the faith of his hearers, I’m not sure how to strictly distinguish an epistolary prayer from each letter.

Body

No explanation required.

Closing

Components of a closing include: prayer, commendation, final instructions, benediction, and Ἕρρωσθε. Where the closing begins can be difficult to discern and is really an interpretive choice.  The close in Galatians, according to Schreiner, is remarkably brief. There is a final exhortation (6:11-17) and a brief closing (6:18).

I wrote a few posts on the opening to the Epistle to the Galatians as shown below:

Grace to You and [then] Peace
Grace to You and [then] Peace, part 2

Hermeneutics of Baptist Covenant Theology

Press the PLAY button below to hear a lecture from Dr. Fred Malone on the hermeneutics that led him to become a Baptist. This sermon provides a good basic overview of hermeneutics – the science of interpretation and serves as a good polemic against paedo-baptism. Dr. Malone explains that Evangelical and Reformed hermeneutic principles, consistently applied, leads to a Baptist Covenant Theological position.

Some of the widely agreed to principles of Biblical Interpretation include:

  1. Inspiration/Inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures
  2. Literal-Grammatical-Historical Method
  3. Analogy of Faith – Scripture interprets Scripture
  4. Perspicuity of Scripture – Scripture is clear enough such that any person (of average intelligence and ability to learn) can understand what is required for salvation and godliness
  5. Unity of Scripture – OT and NT are the Word of God and complimentary to each other
  6. Diversity of Scripture – Scripture is given as a progressive revelation (study Biblical Covenants>
  7. The NT is the final revelation of God to man – it is the most clear revelation of God and explains the type and shadow of OT revelation
  8. Priority of the New Testament – it is the final interpretation of OT
  9. OT contains type/shadow, explained by NT revelation
  10. There is a priority among principles of Biblical Interpretation
  11. Priorities

    • The near context is more determinative of meaning than a far context
    • A didactic discussion of a subject is more significant for that subject than an historical narrative
    • Explicit teaching is more significant than an implication drawn from other texts
    • Literal passages are more determinate than symbolic passages
    • Later passages are more determinate than earlier ones

Dr. Malone recommends the book: Principles of Biblical Interpretation, written by Louis Berkhof as a basic introduction to the field. You may find this book at Amazon by clicking the book cover below:

See also my 3 part review of Dr. Berkhof’s text at the links below:

Berkhof on Basic Bible Interpretation
Berkhof on Grammatical Interpretation
Berkhof on Historical Interpretation
Berkhof on Theological Interpretation

AW Pink on Biblical Interpretation, part 6

The need of interpreting Scripture by Scripture

The general principle is expressed in the well-known words “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:13), for while the preceding clause has reference more especially to the Divine inspiration by which the apostle taught, as the authoritative mouthpiece of the Lord, yet both verses 12 and 14 treat of the understanding of spiritual things, and therefore we consider that the last clause of verse 13 has a double force. …Charles Hodge paraphrases “comparing spiritual things with spiritual” by “explaining the things of the Spirit in the words of the Spirit,” pointing out that the word “spiritual” has no substantive connected with it, and thus most naturally agrees with “words” in the former sentence.

To a very large extent, and far more so than any uninspired book, the Bible is a self-explaining volume: not only because it records the performance of its promises and the fulfillment of its prophecies, not only because its types and antitypes mutually unfold each other, but because all its fundamental truths may be discovered by means of its own contents, without reference to anything ab extra or outside itself. When difficulty be experienced in one passage it may be resolved by a comparison and examination of other passages, where the same or similar words occur, or where the same or similar subjects are dealt with at greater length or explained more clearly.

The principal subjects treated in the Scriptures are presented to us more or less piecemeal, being scattered over its pages and made known under various aspects, some clearly and fully, others more remotely and tersely: in different connections and with different accompaniments in the several passages where they occur. This was designed by God in His manifold wisdom to make us search His Word. It is evident that if we are to apprehend His fully made known mind on any particular subject we must collect and collate all passages in which it is adverted to, or in which a similar thought or sentiment is expressed; and by this method we may be assured that if we conduct our investigation in a right spirit, and with diligence and perseverance, we shall arrive at a clear knowledge of His revealed will.

Barcellos on Hermeneutics

The Midwest Center for Theological studies is a local Baptist Church based ministerial training academy of the Heritage Baptist Church of Owensboro, KY. MCTS provides local and distance learning students with the finest theological training, aimed at preparing men of God to serve their local congregations. MCTS has a high academic reputation and it is doing a wonderful job, as a tool in the arsenal of God, to bring local church reform to baptized congregations across America.

Dr. Richard Barcellos is associate professor of New Testament Studies and administrative assistant to Dr. Sam Waldron. He received a B.S. from California State University, Fresno, an M.Div. from The Master’s Seminary, and a Th.M. and Ph.D. from Whitefield Theological Seminary. In 1990 he planted a church in Southern California and pastored there until July of 2006, when he relocated to Owensboro, KY, to become part of MCTS. He is the managing editor of Reformed Baptist Theological Review, author of In Defense of the Decalogue, and co-author of A Reformed Baptist Manifesto. He has also contributed articles to RBTR, Founders Journal, and Table Talk. Professor Barcellos is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and one of the pastors of Heritage Baptist Church.


The following is a repository to blog posts and class notes which accompany Dr. Barcellos’ summer session hermeneutics class, now in session, at MCTS.

New Testament Use of the Old

Summary: It seems then, that Dispensationalists recognize that the way in which the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament (Matthew 2:6-7, citing Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1; Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1) does not square with the Dispensational system of hermeneutics. The Dispensational response, then, is to conclude that the application that the Apostles made of Old Testament Scripture was uniquely inspired and not normative. The traditional method of interpretation sees the Apostolic interpretation as being normative for the Church (Luke 24:25-27; 44-49).

History of Interpretation

Berkhof on Theological Interpretation

Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

 

Thus far, Dr. Berkhof has provided a very simple and straight forward outline of historic Protestant Bible interpretation – the grammatical-historical method. In the final chapter of his book, Dr. Berkhof tackles a most important topic that must be borne in mind when we attempt to interpret the Word of God. This is, that the Bible is a Spiritual Book. That is, we cannot create a scientific method of Bible interpretation that can mechanically chew through the pages of Scripture coverting text into meaning like a computer which is transforming a stream of data from one form into another. This book was given by God and it is about Him, ultimately, and it cannot be understood at all, except that we have our minds illuminated by His Spirit.

Not long ago, an internet blogger took issue with my pointing out the Jesuit origins of the Dispensationalism method of interpretation and stated, as part of his defense, that even an unregenerate Jesuit could rightly interpret and understand God’s Word if he applies the right system to it – this is simply NOT TRUE. Unaided by the Holy Spirit, the unregenerate man has no hope in the Scriptures of God. They are foolishness to him and he can but damn himself in delusion by studying them.

But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

I Cor 2:10-14

 

 

Dr. Berkhof defends the inclusion of this chapter of his book by noting that purely grammatical and historical analysis of texts does not account for the fact that the Bible is the Word of God and that as a whole, the major parts of it (Old and New Testaments) are related to each other in terms of prophecy and fulfillment, type and antitype, germ and development, etc.

In the rest of the chapter, Berkhof describes (1) the Bible as a unity, (2) The Mystery of Scripture, (3) Implications of Scripture, and (4) Helps for theological interpretation.

Unity of Scripture

In describing the unity of the Bible, Berkhof warns against two opposite errors – nominism and antinomiansim. The one attempts to impose too much Judaism onto Christianity and the other attempts to throw the Old Testament away as though it had no permanent validity. The unity and diversity of the whole Bible must be understood in items such as: (1) the same plan of Redemption flows through both, (2) the true believing children of Abraham are those of faith, (3) there are differences in privileges and duties under the different covenants, (4) differences in ordinances in the covenants, (5) OT offers the key to interpreting the NT, (6) the NT is a commentary on the OT (we must be cautious not to miss this on one hand, and not to read too much into the OT on the other hand).

Mystery in Scripture

The study of the mystical sense of Scripture has not always been characterized by the necessary caution. Some expositors have defended the untenable position that every part of the Bible has besides its literal, also a mystical sense. Others recoiled from that unwarranted position, and went to the extreme of denying outright the existence of any mystical sense.

Berkhof cautions the careful expositor of Scripture to understand that some parts of Scripture are mysterious and must be handled cautiously: for example NT quotation of OT in ways we would not expect, or the way Paul understands marriage as a mystery that describes the relationship between Christ and his Church (see also Gal 4:22-31).

Berkhof next gives sober advice regarding types, prophecies, and Psalms; all of which interpretation I will not summarize here.

Helpful References: Turpie’s The New Testament View of the Old, and, The Old Testament in the New, and Scott’s Principles of New Testament Quotations, and Johnson’s Quotations of the New Testament from the Old.

Implications from Scripture

Next, Berkhof handles the implied sense of Scripture – things that we can deduce or infer based on what Scripture tells us. Certainly brilliant men and imply much more by what they write beyond what is written, how much more the Word of God, which is sufficient for every area of our Spiritual life. Jesus used this technique with the Sadducees who denied a physical resurrection on the grounds that it was not explicitly stated in Scripture. Jesus responded by deducing the afterlife from the fact that God referred to Himself as the (present tense) God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and reproved them by saying that they did not know the Scripture or the power of God.

“It goes without saying that great care must be exercised in drawing such inferences from the written word. The deductions must be …truly contained in the inspired statements from which they are …derived;” and they must not force themselves on the minds of interpreters of Scripture.

In the final section of the chapter, Berkhof offers some helps to the Bible student for performing theological interpretation, which broadly include reading direct parallels (or reading parallel ideas) and the analogy of faith. I won’t summarize Berkhof’s teaching on these as I’ve summarized these ideas elsewhere on this blog.

I highly recommend Berkhof’s little book that, though dry, is a short (166 pages), clear, practical read full of useful examples, end of chapter questions for reflections, and lots of references. Berkhof’s references are all dated, but this is actually an advantage given that many of the references are now available for free download on Google books.

 

 

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 133-166. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.

Berkhof on Historical Interpretation

Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

 

Definition of Historical Interpretation

 

Historical Interpretation is ‘the study of Scripture in the light of those historical circumstances that put their stamp on the different books of the Bible’.  Berkhof rightly remakrs that Grammital-Historical interpretation is not to be confused with the ‘present day historical-critical method of interpretation, which is based on the philosophy of evolution as applied to history’.

Berkhof goes on to explain that everything contained in the Bible ‘originated in an historical way’, meaning that the Bible records events as they occurred in history.  Some things contained in Scripture are supernatural, of course, but in the main, everything is historical.  Therefore, it is impossible to understand an author, unless we interpret him in light of his historical context.

NOTE: Berkhof doesn’t address it, but we understand that the ultimate and final author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, who is timeless and not subject to the characteristics of time, and yet we understand that the Holy Spirit used men in their own times and within their own historical context to address other men living within a certain time and under certain historical circumstances.

 

Demands on the Exegete

 

a) Seek to know the author whose work is being studied – his character and life circumstances

In order to know Paul, you should be very familiar with all his writings as well as his life story – Acts 7:58; 8:1-4; 91,2,22,26; 13:46-48; Rom 9:1-3; 1 Cor 15:9; 2 Cor 11; 12:1-11; Gal 1:13-15; 2:11-16; Phil 1:7-8, 12-18; 3:5-14; 1 Tim 1:13-16.  Paul was a product of the diaspora, of the rabbinical school of Gamaliel, versed in Hebrew scriptures and culture, very zealous for his traditions, then later a penitent convert and loyal servant of Jesus Christ anxious to give his life in service to Jesus Christ who yearned for the salvation of his kinsmen, etc.  To understand Paul, background study on these items should be carried out.

b) Seek to know the environment in which the particular work was written – understand the original recipients and circumstances for the writing.

General Circumstances

1) Geographical circumstances – character of scenery (mountains, deserts, landscape, vegetation, climate, etc)  adds clarity to Bible study, especially to parables.

Examples: dew of Hermon, glory of Lebanon, excellency of Carmel, rose of Sharon, etc.

NOTE: Berkhof recommends the following works for geography: Robinson’s Biblical Researches, Thomson’s The Land and the Book, Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, and Smith’s Historical Geography, all dated, but freely available at Google Books.

2) Political Circumstances – a literature of a people is effected by its politics, note especially the varied and complex nature of politics in Israel under wanderings, conquest, judges, and various administrations of kings and the influences of surrounding nations.

Special Circumstances

1) Original Hearers and Readers – this is most important with occasional writings such as those by the prophets or the epistles.  This  accounts for the content and tone of each writing.

2) Original Purpose of the Author – the author naturally had some central purpose for his writing, this must be foremost in our mind as we try to interpret what he meant by what he wrote.

NOTE: It is important to study the historical circumstances for a particular piece of writing, but as Berkhof wisely notes, ‘the interpreter should gratefully apply whatever historical knowledge he has at his command, in the interpretation of the Bible, he must be careful not to let his imagination run riot in the exposition of Scripture.’  Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology audio series, while commenting on using tools to help understand the context of a passage wisely counseled the student of Scripture to use as much time and he has available for studying the passage, but no more.  In other words, these things are helpful, in so far as you have the time and resources to study them.

 

Helps For the Exegete

 

Internal

The principle resources for the historical interpretation of Scripture are found in the Bible itself.  …it contains the absolute truth, and therefore its information deserves to be preferred to that gleaned from other sources. … The believing conscientious expositor will ask first of all: What does the Bible say?

External

1) Inscriptions on archeological finds

2) Other historical writings – Josephus, Herodotus, Talmud, etc.

It is possible that the expositor, in studying these sources, will occasionally  find that they apparently conflict with the Bible.  In such cases, he should not hastily conclude thaht Scripture is mistaken, but must always bear in mind that …the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

 

REFERENCES: Davidson, Sacred Hermeneutics, pp. 320-333; Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 129-140;

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 113-132. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.

Berkhof on Grammatical Interpretation

Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

The Interpretation of the Thought

As the Bible is written message, the reader interprets the writing sentence by sentence, understanding each sentence as a whole before looking at ‘particulars’ – ‘specific words and concepts’. The less desirable way to proceed, what Berkhof recommends, is to work from the words to the sentence (bottoms-up), because the Bible is foreign literature.

  1. The Etymology of Words – It is not advisable that interpreters indulge in etymological investigations – this is difficult work to be left to specialists. ‘Moreover, the etymological meaning of a word does not always shed light on its current signification.’
  2. The Current Use of Words
    • Semantic range of meaning of a word over time
    • Significance of how the word is used by Biblical authors

    NOTE: The ‘current’ signification of a word is far more important than its historical uses.

    This is the work of good lexicons, but lexicons are not perfectly reliable, especially when they ‘descend to particulars.’ They ‘merely embody those results of the exegetical labors of various interpreters that commend themselves to the discriminating judgment of the lexicographer…’ We need to be cautious of dogmatic bias [and liberal bias]. The interpreter needs to inductively study of words for himself by use of concordances and ‘internal’ helps.

  3. The Synonymous Use of Words – Synonyms can be used as a literary device to allow an author to vary his expressions or they may be employed to convey different shades of meaning. Understanding synonyms/antonyms is the ‘sina qua non of a discriminating knowledge of Biblical revelation.’ This area of study is fascinating and dangerous. Synonymous words usually have general and ‘distinctive’ meanings. An expositor can create fanciful interpretations by always resorting to distinctive meanings of words. Only context can determine which meaning must be understood. As a general rule, ‘if two or more synonymous words or expressions are found in the same passage, it is generally safe to assume that their special signification requires attention.’

REFERENCES: Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 79-106; Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 73-100; Richard Trench, New Testament Synonyms.

The Meaning of the Words in their Connection

The most important consideration when looking at the words of a text is the literary context in which they are used. Words have meaning in connection with other words in a sentence, not apart from them.

  1. The Sense of any Expression is Determined by the Words Employed – the sense of scripture is determined by what is says and not by pre-conceived opinions or systems of theology.
  2. A Word Can Only Have One Fixed Meaning in its Context (see NOTE on A above) – Words can have various meanings, but only one meaning is carried in a particular place in scripture and that meaning is the most obvious plain one that fits with the surrounding context.
  3. [Some] Cases in Which a Word Implies Multiple Things (i.e. Peace in Jn 20:21 implies peace with God, peace of conscience, among men, etc)
  4. A Word Used In the Same Connection More than Once Carries Same Meaning Throughout – Ordinarily an author will not use a single word with various meanings within a single passage (obvious exceptions, ‘dead’ in Mt 8:22, ‘Israel’ in Rm 9:6)

Internal Helps

What a word means in a particular passage should be determined by internal helps before consulting external helps (lexicons and commentaries).

  1. Definitions Which Authors Themselves Provide
  2. A subject and Predicate of a Clause Explain Each Other
  3. An Examination of Parallelism May Help (especially with regard to synonyms) – Many times a second parallel clause explains the meaning of the first
  4. Parallel Passages Provide Help – A parallel passage in which a word or phrase is used in a more clear way may help interpret a passage where a word or phrase is used in an unclear way. The clear helps understand the unclear, never the reverse. Also, parallels from the same author take precedence over parallels from a different author – especially from a different time period.

NOTE: A phrase may be repeated in the Bible, but is not a parallel unless a similar sentiment is expressed.
REFERENCES: Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 79-88, 119-128; Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 76-106

The Figurative Use of Words

  1. Principal Tropes (Figures of Speech) Used in Scripture
    • Metaphor – something stated to be something else for comparison purposes (“the world is a stage”)
    • Metonymy – a word is used as a figure for something it represents (“to read Calvin” means to read his writing, not him)
    • Synecdoche – a part is put for a whole or a whole is put for a part (“50 noses” means 50 people or referring to people as souls)
  2. How to Determine Whether Figurative or Literal Sense is Meant – Interpreting something literally that is meant figuratively can be disastrous (Jn 4:11,32; 6:52; Mt 16:6-12) – especially “this is my body.”
    • Laws, historical writing, philosophy, scientific works, etc. aim at clearness and not literary quality.
    • ‘Words should be understood in their literal sense unless such interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity.’ (subjective)
  3. Useful Principles for Interpreting Figurative Language
    • Interpreter must understand the things on which the figures are based – geography, religious practice, history, life and customs
    • Interpreter must understand the principle idea and not focus too much attention on smaller details
    • All figures of God are not perfect and complete – light, rock, tower, fortress, shield

REFERENCES: Milton Terry, Hermeneutical Manual, pp 157-176; Patrick Fairbairn, Hermeneutical Manual, pp. 157-173

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, pp 87-109. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.

Berkhof on Basic Bible Interpretation

Louis Berkhof was a Reformed theologian best known for his Systematic Theology (1932). He taught for almost four decades at Calvin Theological Seminary and served as its president from 1931-1944. In his work on systematic theology Berkhof followed in the line of John Calvin and embraced the development of Reformed theology by the Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

The distinction between the fundamental forms of God’s revelation (p. 56):

  1. Historical Narrative: Historical facts narrated in the Bible are history and should be interpreted as such.
  2. Didactic Writing: Direct teaching is found in the Old Testament primarily in the Law and in the New Testament in the discourses of Jesus and the Epistles.
  3. Prophecy: An insight into the mysteries of God. This teaches us the ways of God in the past, reveals his will for the present, and previews the future for our consolation.
  4. Poetry: The stirrings of God’s heart stir the souls of his believers.

Safeguards against misunderstanding the Unity of the Sense (Meaning) of Scripture (pp. 58-60)

  1. Distinction between the one sense of a passage and it’s many applications
  2. Distinction between a double fulfillment of prophecy and a double sense
    1. Some prophecies are fulfilled in several successive events
    2. Some portions of Scripture have a deeper sense than understood on the surface, but never a second sense

      NOTE: There is no truth in the assertion that the intent of the secondary author, determined by a grammatico-historical method, always exhausts the full single sense of Scripture, and represents in all its fullness the meaning of the Holy Spirit.

Oriental Style of Scripture (pp. 61-63)

  1. Represent abstract truths in concrete forms [anthropomorphism]
    1. “Thou has a mighty arm…” (Ps 89:13) – represents God’s strength
    2. “There went up a smoke out of his nostrils…” (Ps 18:8) – represents God’s Holy anger
  2. Personify nature [anthropomorphism]
    1. “Let the trees be joyful…then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice” (Ps 96:12)
    2. “Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together” (Ps 98:8)
  3. Write historical events in a colorful picturesque way (and in present tense)
  4. Use parallelism and redundancy to make a point

Why Protestants maintain the prerogative of every Christian to study and interpret Scripture (pp. 65-66):

  1. The Scriptures were not written by the Church (as an institution), but by the Holy Spirit to (the people of) the Church (the whole universal church, not only office-bearers)
  2. God holds every man responsible for his faith and conduct
  3. Dt 13:1-3

    John 5:39
    Gal 1:8-9

Benjamin Keach’s Baptist Catechism, 1677, Question #6:
Q. 6. May all men make use of the Scriptures?

A. All men are not only permitted, but commanded and exhorted, to read, hear, and understand the Scriptures. (John 5:39; Luke 16:29; Acts 8:28-30; Acts 17:11)

Berkhof, Louis, Principles of Biblical Interpretation. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1952.