wheat and the weeds

By Kieran Beville

The historical-grammatical method of interpretation is necessary if one is going to interpret the Bible rightly. This means that the interpreter must be sensitive to the historical context and setting of the passage under examination. It also means that the interpreter must be sensitive to its grammar or word usage. Another term frequently used by theologians is “literal interpretation.” It is commonly used in its dictionary sense, “…the natural or usual construction and implication of a writing or expression; following the ordinary and apparent sense of words; not allegorical or metaphorical.”[1]

Although there are elements of allegory in Scripture, the Bible is not an allegorical book. An allegorical work is one in which the characters and events are understood as representing other things. An allegorical work symbolically expresses a deeper, often spiritual, moral, or political meaning ~ for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is a political allegory.

A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object. It is not meant to be taken literally. A metaphor by means of a vivid comparison expresses something about him, her, or it. A metaphor is making a comparison without the use of the word “like” or “as.” For example, saying that somebody is a snake. A simile is a figure of speech that draws a comparison between two different things, especially a phrase containing the word “like” or “as.” For example, “as white as a sheet.”

Literal interpretation does not mean a kind of wooden literalism. It is about the usual, customary, or normal sense of words. Literal interpretation recognizes nuances, metaphors, similes hyperbole, symbolism, plays on words, or the various figures of speech which the biblical writers frequently used. Hyperbole is a deliberate and obvious exaggeration used for effect, e.g., “I could eat a million of these.” Hyperbole is used in Scripture, and it is important to recognize it. We will deal with these figures of speech in more detail later.

Normally when a person says something or writes something he does not intend that a diversity of meanings should be attached to what he says or writes. Usually, his listeners or readers understand the obvious sense. The late Old Testament scholar, Oswald T. Allis, has written, “No literalist, however, thoroughgoing, takes everything in the Bible literally. Nor do those who lean to a more figurative method of interpretation insist that everything is figurative. Both principles have their proper place and their necessary limitations.”[2] Therefore, it is important to qualify the meaning of “literal interpretation in order to avoid misunderstanding what is intended by the phrase.

The advantage of the literal or historical-grammatical interpretation is that it is the method usually practiced in the interpretation of literature. It is the usual method used for ancient or modern, sacred or secular texts.

The postmodern approach is different because it does not seek authorial intent. For the postmodern interpreter, it is the individual reader or community, which gives meaning to the text. This has spawned a whole new area of hermeneutics.[3]

The literal or historical-grammatical method controls the exegete from falling prey to common abuses of Scripture. That is, common abuses such as mystical and allegorical forms of interpretation. We must permit clear or plain passages of Scripture to explain those which are more obscure or difficult. Thus, Scripture interprets Scripture. This requires a careful comparison of one verse with another. This ensures a legitimate parallel in thought or doctrine and not merely a verbal one. Thus, we may clarify a passage which was previously shrouded in mystery. The Protestant Reformers spoke of this principle as the analogia Scriptura (analogy of Scripture). This means that since the Bible does not contradict itself, we must look to other passages of the Word to help illumine those which are less clear. As J. I. Packer has stated:

The Bible appears like a symphony orchestra, with the Holy Ghost as its Toscanini; each instrumentalist has been brought willingly, spontaneously, creatively, to play his notes just as the great conductor desired, though none of them could ever hear the music as a whole…The point of each part only becomes fully clear when seen in relation to all the rest.[4]

We must be always aware of the historical background because the Bible was written within human history. The interpreter must seek to be informed about the historical events and culture in which the passage was conceived. Many Bible study tools and resources enable biblical students to bridge the historical and cultural gap between the ancient biblical world and our world in the twenty-first century. As H. H. Rowley points out:

A religion which is thus rooted and grounded in history cannot ignore history. Hence a historical understanding of the Bible is not a superfluity which can be dispensed with in biblical interpretation, leaving a body of ideas and principles divorced from the process out of which they were born.[5]

Distinguish Between What the Bible Records and What it Approves

The inexperienced Bible reader may make the mistake of assuming that because Scripture records the actions of a character that God endorses such action. The Bible is a record of redemptive history, which records a variety of deeds on the part of humans (both good and bad). Every instance noted within its pages is not morally evaluated in explicit terms. We may have to consider other hermeneutical factors in order to arrive at a conclusion concerning the morality of the incident set forth.

For example, 1 Samuel 25 records an incident when David was prepared to slaughter Nabal and his entire household (v.17). This was because of Nabal’s lack of hospitality and disrespectful words toward David and his servants (vs. 3, 10-11). The only thing that spared David from committing this deed was the gracious words of Abigail, Nabal’s wife (vs. 23-35). There is, however, no indication that David’s original intention was the will of God. More than likely, David’s hand was sovereignly spared from carrying out such a foolish and unnecessary act (regardless of how discourteous Nabal may have been).

Another instance is the tragic account recorded in Judges 11:29-40. Jephthah made a tragic and inappropriate vow to the Lord. He sacrificed his only daughter in order to fulfill his vow to the Lord. What a terrible thing to do! We should not make rash, foolish or bad promises and if we do then we should not feel compelled to keep them. Just because something is recorded in Scripture does not mean it is approved by God.

Recorded or approved

In Acts 21:22-26 Paul took upon himself a vow. He shaved his head, purified himself according to Jewish custom and went into the temple, and even offered a sacrifice. He did this in order to demonstrate that he was not hostile to the Law or his Jewish heritage. This particular incident can hardly be normative for Christians today. In fact, there is no evidence that this was even considered normative for Jewish Christians living in the first century. It was only Paul and four other companions who undertook that vow.

how-to-interpret-the-bible2What factors help us to discern whether an early apostolic church practice is normative for modern Christians?[6] How can we tell if something recorded in the New Testament is merely cultural or a distinctive apostolic practice which is normative for Christians of all ages? Admittedly, this is not always an easy question to answer. Christian theologians have not always found agreement. However, the following points may help the Bible student. We want to separate those early church practices, which were clearly cultural, and those, which are meant to be implemented by all believers of all eras. To begin with, we ought to separate things that were limited to the customs of the first-century era ~ such as wearing tunics, writing on parchments, etc.

There are distinctive practices and ministry patterns of the early church, which are normative. What is a distinctive, apostolic pattern and how can we tell what is distinctive and what is not? Briefly, a distinctive apostolic church pattern is a practice that often goes contrary to the culture of the day ~ for example, Jews and Gentiles meeting and eating together as one body. (Eph. 2:11-16) This was contrary to the religious custom of the day. Apostolic traditions countered both Jewish and pagan practices then prevalent in the Judeo and Greco-Roman worlds.[7] For example, the early Christians (in contrast to Judaism and the pagan mystery religions) had no need for temples or shrines. They did not have any need for special “holy men” or priests who would perform religious exercises on their behalf.[8]

Something that is intended to be normative is usually repeated within the New Testament. It is something that seems to have been the usual practice of the early Christian assemblies. There is a noticeable uniformity in basic church structure and practice, which appears to have been the mark of all apostolic churches. For example, the pattern of multiple participation may be found in Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:11-16; 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25; 1 Pet.4:10-11. This indicates that there was a distinctive apostolic practice common to all the churches regardless of their geographical location.―1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33.

Rooted in Theology

Distinctive apostolic practices are rooted in theology. In other words, New Testament church forms were not meaningless or merely cultural, but instead, reflective of theological truth. They have a doctrinal basis. Thus using one cup and one bread in the Lord’s Supper symbolizes unity in Christ. (1 Cor. 10:16-17) The important thing here is to observe the ordinance as commanded by the Lord ~ where, when and how are subordinate to why we do this. Allowing mutual participation in the assembly is the practical outworking of Paul’s theology of the body. (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:16) But we must be careful not to sanctify form. It is function that is important ~ form is generally secondary.

INTERPRETING THE BIBLEA distinctive apostolic practice does not need to be explicitly commanded. Obviously, all the directives must be taken seriously. Things that are not explicitly commanded can still be authoritative for church practice. In fact, most church practices generally deemed necessary (to be faithful to apostolic teaching) are not commanded in the New Testament. For example, there is no direct command to gather weekly every Sunday. It is known that the early believers did regularly gather on the first day of the week (Sunday). However, there is no direct command to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly. There is no direct command that every congregation has a plurality of elders and deacons. Yet these were clearly the distinctive apostolic patterns of the early church. Should they be practiced by churches today? There is no direct or explicit command that such patterns must be followed. Yet many churches would feel that they are less than faithful to the New Testament if they did not implement such ministry patterns.

The apostles did not need to preface all their words explicitly with direct commands. Most often the example or model which they set before us and encourage us to imitate is sufficient. (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1-2, 16; 14:33; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6-7; 2 Thess. 2:15) After all, Paul did explicitly say “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.”―1 Corinthians 11:1-2.

It is important to be careful in exalting first-century Christianity as the ideal because not everything, which transpired, is necessarily the supreme example for churches today.  While it is necessary to look for distinctive apostolic patterns, it must be borne in mind that no period of church history is infallible and to be emulated without question. In fact, we know that the early churches had many problems in belief and behavior.

In the Corinthian church, there was divisions and strife. Judaizers deceived the Galatian churches. Consider Christ’s stern warnings to five of the seven churches of Asia Minor. (Rev. 2-3) While we must be faithful to apostolic ecclesiology, we should also be appreciative of those advances or contributions, which Christ has brought to his church through his servants in subsequent eras ~ such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Carey and many others.

Do not Build a Doctrine on an Uncertain Textual Reading

We should not erect an entire teaching or system of theology upon a verse. Such an inverted pyramid is structurally unsafe. Christian theology should be built upon passages that exist in the original manuscripts. For instance, it would be wrong to defend the doctrine of the Trinity from the King James Version reading of 1 John 5:7 which says “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” No known ancient manuscript can attest to this reading. Neither should we build a case for contemporary tongues and miraculous signs based upon Mark 16:15-18. Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20. Some Bible scholars do not believe that Mark wrote these verses, asserting they were added at a later date by some other author. The reason for this view is that the language used in these verses is different from the language used in the rest of the Gospel of Mark. The early church fathers mention this section being in Mark toward the end of the first century. Although Mark 16:9-20 is included in Bible publications it should be noted that it is an interpolation from a century after the author died and as such is not part of the original inspired canon of Scripture.[9]

[1] Webster’s New International Dictionary.

[2] Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, (Wipf & Stock, 2001), 17.

[3] This would be a separate study.

[4] J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, (Baker Academic, 1994), 74.

[5] H. H. Rowley, cited in Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, (3rd edition, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1970), 154.

[6] See the chapter in this book entitled “Finding the Normative in Acts for some principles and guidelines.

[7] It should, however, be noted that there are elements of continuity as well as discontinuity, in relation to Judaic practices, in early Christianity.

[8] This is not intended as a criticism of ordained ministers in the church today.

[9] Christian Publishing House would suggest the following article: Was Mark 16:9-20 Written by Mark?