Interpreting the Bible Accurately - Session 1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

By Ron Jones ©Titus Institute 2010

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Interpreting the Bible Accurately - Session 2

Principles of Scriptural Consistency


Last week, we began a four-week series on Principles of Interpreting the Bible Accurately. The principles have been used by faithful and careful Bible interpreters for centuries and can keep us from imposing our own views and biases on the Scriptures and can help us discern when others are falling into that trap.

Our study is divided into four main points:

W1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

W2 Principles of Scriptural Consistency

W3 Principle of Scriptural Covenants

W4 Principles of Scriptural Application

These are three categories of principles of interpretation that I am giving you so you can interpret the Bible properly.

All of these principles could be called the Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture.

REVIEW: Last week we dealt with four Principles centered in discovering the Author's Intended Meaning.

Session 2 - W2 Principles of Scriptural Consistency

These principles are based on the important truth that the Scriptures are from God and teach one body of truth, God's truth, in all its books.

John 17:17 "Your Word is truth."

Jesus taught that God's Word (singular - all the books of the Scriptures taken as one whole) is truth. This is Biblical inerrancy. This is foundational to understanding the Word of God as God intended it to be understood.

The principles that we will learn today are all based on this foundation.

Principle 5: One book of the Bible cannot contradict another book of the Bible in its record of details.

If God wrote the Bible by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through all the writers of the 66 books of OT and NT and God and it is all true, then one book of the Bible cannot contradict another book of the Bible in its detail or its doctrine.

Interpret a Scripture passage in a way that is consistent in details with other Scripture passages that relate the same event.

Principle 5 looks at details. Principles 6 and 7 and looks at doctrine.

Many liberal scholars who refuse to believe in inerrancy, misinterpret the Bible when it comes to the synoptic gospels and the different details in the life of Christ. When they come to a passage in Matthew that does not seem to match in Mark or Luke, they automatically assume there is an error. They do not attempt to reconcile the passage based on inerrancy, but many can be reconciled.

Biblical Example of Principle 5: Resurrection Accounts

How many women at the tomb?

Matthew 28:1 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary

Mark 16:1-2 Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James, Salome

Luke 24:1, 10 Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women

John 20:1-2 Mary Magdalene (Mary says "we")

Authors and reporters can mention one or more of the people present at an event and do not contradict each other as long as they don't state that the person or persons they mention were the only ones.

What does the interpreter who believes in inerrancy do about this? He or she will seek to reconcile the accounts together so that neither is in error.

In modern reporting today we see this: For example, the President of the U.S. may be speaking at a luncheon that is to be reported in both the local and national news. Also, speaking just before him was the secretary of labor, giving a brief five minute speech. When it is reported, in the local news, the ambassador's speech is mentioned. When it is reported in the national news the ambassador is not mentioned. No one today assumes that one of these news are lying or in error. Both are accurate giving different details. It should never be assumed that what is reported is all that took place.

The gospel accounts are no different than these news services.

As those who accept what the Bible claims about itself regarding its inspiration and inerrancy, then we must interpret the Bible according to the principle that one book cannot contradict another book in the details of its records.

Biblical Example of Principle 5: The Cleansing of the Temple

When did Jesus cleanse the temple? Matthew 21:12-17 Mark 11:15-19 Luke 19:45-48

Matthew, Mark, and Luke place a cleansing of the temple just after he enters Jerusalem a week before his death.

John 2:13-16

John mentions a cleansing of the temple at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Bart Ehrman and others say, "Error in the Bible." But the careful interpreter who believes in inerrancy can reconcile the accounts. There were two cleansings of the temple. Jesus' first cleansing of the temple is described in John 2:11-12 as having occurred just after Jesus' first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. The second cleansing of the temple occurred just after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem the last week of His life. This second cleansing is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke but not in John.

If God wrote the Bible and inspired it by the power of the Holy Spirit, then one book cannot contradict another book in its details. So, we have to find a consistency in passages that seem to be in disagreement between one book and another. Most passages in terms of details can be reconciled, but not all will be able to because we don't have enough historical and cultural information from the past to reconcile them. And that's okay.

Principle 6:

One book of the Bible cannot contradict another book of the Bible in its doctrine.

Interpret a Scripture passage in a way that is doctrinally consistent with all other Scripture passages.

Principles 6 and 7 are two of the most important principles that you need to know and understand.

The Bible is unique because it is inspired by God and God is the author of truth and therefore the Bible throughout all its books teaches one unified and consistent body of truth. We call this systematic theology. It has become popular to look down on systematic theology as old school and not necessary, but systematic theology is built upon the premise that there is one body of truth in the Scriptures. That is true.

Since God has only one body of truth, therefore all that is written in the Bible about doctrine must be consistent. When we come to a passage that seems to contradict another book of the Bible doctrinally, we need to find consistency between them. We need to reconcile them.

Biblical Example of Principle 6:

The Doctrine of Eternal Security

Can a true Christian lose his or her salvation?

Hebrews 6:4-6 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

When first reading Hebrews 6:4-6, a Christian can think it refers to losing one's salvation.

But we need to see what other Scriptures say about salvation.

John 6:38-40 38 "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."

v. 39 "of all that he has given me" = v.40 "everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him" = believers

What will happen to them? Jesus will not lose any and will raise all of them up on the last day. That's eternal security. If Jesus, the Son of God, loses one believer, then he ceases to be God. Further Jesus says,

John 6:44 "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day."

Father draws someone to Christ and he or she accepts Christ, the Son raises that person on the last day. This is eternal security - no room for losing one's salvation

Now let's go back to Hebrews 6. This passage cannot contradict the Gospel of John so it must be talking about a non-Christian. See if there is clue in the context. There is. Look at v.9

Hebrews 6:9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things - things that belong to salvation.

The writer to the Hebrews says that he expects better things of them than the characteristics described, things that accompany salvation, things that describe believers.

The people he is describing in 6:4-6 are not saved.

Hebrews 6:4-6 must be interpreted in harmony with eternal security.

These people are those who attach themselves to Christianity but never turn to Jesus Christ and never repented of their sin, submitted themselves to him, and accepted him as their Savior.

Principle 7: Let Scripture explain Scripture and develop doctrines based on all that the Bible says.

This is a second principle founded upon the fact that God has only one body of truth. As I said, every time speakers speak and writers write they do not say or write everything that there is to say or write on a particular subject. Also, God reveals truth about the same subject at different times and in different ways through different prophets and apostles in the OT and NT. So what Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Paul says in one place should be explained by what each has said in other places.

We also need to see that the NT explains the OT and the OT explains the NT. And the OT writers explain other OT writers and the NT writers explain other NT writers. And when you are interpreting what God says about a particular doctrine, you need to see what all of the Bible says about it.

So, we need to look at all the passages in the Scriptures that talk about a particular subject and put them together to form a consistent whole and we need to let the clearer ones explain the ones that are not as clear. This is essential.

Biblical Examples of Principle 7:

1. The Doctrine of the Trinity The central doctrine of the Bible is identity of Jesus Christ as God, the second person of the Trinity who became a human being. This doctrine is taught all over the Bible in various ways throughout many passages. If we are to interpret the passages these are taught in accurately we need to allow them to explain each other and take into account all the Scriptures on the nature and identity of Jesus Christ.

The Bible clearly teaches there is only one God.

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Isaiah 44:6 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god."

The Lord says that there is no God besides him.

John 1:1-2 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.

The Word was with "the God" and "was God."

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

John 20:28-29 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

The doctrine of the Trinity is the only doctrine that can fit all these Biblical statements together. There is only one God, yet three persons are called God, Father, Son and Spirit.

Biblical Example of Principle 7:

What does "son of man" mean? Why did Jesus use that phrase? Jesus used two key titles of himself, "Son of God" and "Son of Man." These were both messianic titles from the OT.

Mk.14:60-62 60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" 61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" 62 And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."

The son of man is mentioned in Daniel 7:13-14.

Daniel 7:13-14 13 "I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed."

You can't understand this passage or others unless you use other Scriptures to explain them and then you must build your doctrine upon all the Scriptures.

Principle 8: When two doctrines which are clearly taught in the Scriptures appear to be contradictory, we must accept that their resolution is our human understanding.

Bible Example of Principle 8:

How can Jesus at one time exercise His divine knowledge as God in Jn.1:44-51, then another time not exercise it as man?

John 21:17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

Matthew 24:36 "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."

Jesus is obviously talking of his human nature and how he did not know in terms of his role as the God-man sent to redeem the world. But as God he knows all things. How can he know and not know at the same time? We can state what is happening theologically.

He knows in his deity, but not in his humanity. When Jesus became a man, he stopped the independent use of his attributes, so he knew all things by divine nature, but did not choose to know all things humanly except that which was under the Father's will for him to know.

But we cannot explain how? We must accept that it is our human understanding. It is just supernatural as the Trinity itself. God does not reveal how we can reconcile these two. We need to accept them both.

Principle 9: Narrative examples in the Scriptures should be accepted as authoritative only when supported b y a Biblical command.

Narratives should never be the basis of our doctrine, but examples of it. Narratives in the Bible narrate what happened and what certain individuals did, but do not generally give divine comments on those actions.

So we have to be careful when drawing conclusions from narratives about whether we should do the same thing. People who misinterpret the Bible often fall into this.They build doctrine off of narratives. But narratives only say someone did something, but do not explain if this is something we are supposed to do.

Bible Example of Principle 9:

Luke 6:13 12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:

How Jesus prayed exemplified the importance of prayer in his life and was done out of the situations and circumstances of his mission. But is that something we must do? No, if we have not been given a command to do it by Jesus or the apostles.

But nowhere is there a command to go into a deserted place and pray or to pray all night or to get up early and pray.

Principle 10: Follow Bible teachers who are committed to Biblical Inerrancy and the Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture.

There are a lot of Bible teachers and scholars who are teaching the Scriptures both in audio and written form. I am one of them. How do we discern who to listen to?

1. They believe in the full inerrancy of Scripture

Many evangelical scholars will say they believe in the inerrancy of Scripture but they believe in partial inerrancy, that is most of the Bible has no errors but not all of the Bible.

2. They believe in the Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture

The Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture which we have been learning and has been used by the church of Jesus Christ since the beginning of its founding by the apostles is based on Biblical Inspiration and Inerrancy and God’s revelation of truth apart from the culture and views of the time.

God communicates truth to human beings by using the normal meaning of words but conveying his truth and not the falsehoods of the culture. For example, if the ancient near eastern culture believed that the earth was surrounded by a solid dome with windows in it for rain to come through that has absolutely no bearing on the revelation of God given by Moses in Genesis which is that the expanse or firmament was not solid. Both views may use the same words of their language, but God conveys his truth through those words according to the context of the Bible. God does not accommodate the false views of the culture of the ancient near eastern peoples to reveal his truth. This is what we have been learning.

Martin Luthor

Martin Luther in his commentary on Genesis gives us a concrete example of what we mean by a historical-grammatical literal interpretation. At the beginning of the commentary he emphasizes repeatedly that Moses is writing history when he speaks of creation and the fall.

In his comments on Gen. 3:14 he writes, “I adhere simply to the historical and literal meaning, which is in harmony with the text. In accordance with this meaning, the serpent remains a serpent, but one dominated by Satan; the woman remains a woman: Adam remains Adam, just as the following events prove.”

Most evangelical scholars today do not use this method. They use the historical-critical method of interpretation.

The Historical Critical Method of Interpretation

This method uses the word "historical" differently than the Historical Grammatical Literal Method.

This view holds that the authors of the Bible because they were human beings who lived at a certain time in history reflect the views and the opinions of their own historical period both in the words they used and how they wrote the Scriptures.

For example, if the ancient near eastern culture believed that the earth was surrounded by a solid dome with windows in it for rain to come through that has a bearing on the author’s meaning when he used the word expanse or firmament in Genesis. The author may have had that in mind when he wrote. The cultural beliefs or the author pervade the Scriptures.

Also, the ancient near eastern peoples used myths to convey truth and so do the authors of Scripture such as the story of Jonah. It is a myth used to convey truth about God.

This view originated in liberal scholarship by those who did not believe in Biblical inspiration or inerrancy. It has been embraced by most evangelical scholars in the last 40 years who believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, but not in all that it affirms. The authors have been influenced by the views and the opinions of their own historical period.

Those scholars who are Christians and use this method are going to misinterpret some Biblical texts, especially the ones that present-day scientists and archaeologists dispute. They are also more likely to reinterpret the Biblical texts that are in conflict with our present-day culture and say that the authors reflect their own culture but that does not reflect what God means for today.

An Example from the Book, Five Views of Inerrancy

In the book entitled, Five Views of Inerrancy, five scholars give their views of Biblical inerrancy. Only one scholar, Albert Mohler believes in full Biblical inerrancy and he is the only one who uses a Historical Grammatical Literal Method. The other four do not believe in full Biblical inerrancy and all of them use the historical-critical method.

In the book, each scholar was asked to give their interpretation as to the historicity of Joshua 6 and the defeat of Jericho by Israel. Only Albert Mohler said it was a historical account that actually happened. The other four said either it was a historical error or “mythologized history,” but not historically accurate.

Evaluating Bible Teachers and Scholars

Evaluating whether a scholar or pastor or Bible teacher believes in inerrancy and uses the Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture is important because often instead of doing that, Christians look to teachers and scholars they like or that are popular.

The change in much of evangelical scholarship to the historical-critical method has caused a lot of confusion in the church. This has resulted in Christians picking the interpretation of specific texts or doctrines by a particular teacher or scholar whose ministry they like or whose interpretation they like or both.

They assume if scholars and Bible teachers differ within evangelical Christianity there must be many ways of interpreting the Scriptures. So when it comes to understanding what the Bible says about the role of women in the church, the nature of marriage, gender identity and sexual orientation and the like (I mention these because they are the current controversial topics in the church), they assume they can pick who they believe without carefully evaluating the method of interpretation they are using and doing careful study of the text.

We have to evaluate how a particular evangelical scholar or Bible teacher is interpreting the Scriptures. Because they are evangelical, does not mean they are Biblically sound in every area of interpreting the Scriptures.