The Bible can be made to say what the interpreter desires for it to say. For instance, a person could rightly state that the Bible says that there is no God. For instance, Psalm 14:1 states quite explicitly “there is no God.” However, when placed in its proper context, one will find that David writes, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). It is disturbing how the Bible has been used to justify one’s preconceived opinions. At times, the Bible has been used to justify cultural ideologies. For instance, southern American plantation owners during the pre-Civil War days used the Bible to justify slavery. Civil rights leaders of the 1960s used the same Bible to condemn slavery and promote equality. Who was right? More importantly, is there a way that one can know what the Bible actually says instead of what one desires for it to say? The atheist misuses Scripture as well as the ultra-fundamentalist. Again, is there a way to know what the Bible actually says?
The good news is that one CAN accurately interpret the Word of God. This enters the realm of what is called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is defined as
“the science of the methods of *exegesis (q.v.). Whereas exegesis is usually the act of explaining a text, often in the case of sacred literature according to formally prescribed rules, hermeneutics is the science (or art) by which exegetical procedures are devised. In theology, hermeneutical theory arises out of awareness of the ambiguity of a sacred text and the consequent analysis of the act of understanding” (Cross and Livingstone 2005, 765).
A difference exists between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis means that one allows the text to speak for itself whereas eisegesis indicates that one makes the text say what they want it to say. Individuals who desire to know the actual truth of the Scripture will practice exegetical practices. In this article, seven exegetical practices will be given that this writer has learned over the course of 13+ years of ministry.
1. Read the Bible in chunks instead of bits.
Greg Koukl has said on his radio show “Stand to Reason” that one should never read a Bible verse. One should always read Bible passages. This is a great piece of advice. In fact, many misapplications of Scripture have taken place when one uses only one verse of Scripture. If a Bible verse does not make sense to the reader, the reader should read the paragraph. If the paragraph does not make sense to the readers, read the paragraphs before and after the verse in question. If the text still does not make sense to the reader, then read the chapter. If it still doesn’t make sense, read the surrounding chapters. If the text still doesn’t make sense, read the book. In other words, the reader will want to scan outwards. Consider the graphic below. Start with the verse and work your way outward.
Pastor Brian Chilton, 2014
2. Seek the writer’s meaning.
Another important exegetical tactic is for the reader to seek the writer’s meaning. Before one extracts application from a text, one needs to first examine what the writer was trying to say to his intended audience. For instance: if one is examining Paul’s statement to the Corinthians where he writes that “women are to keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34), ask yourself what may have prompted such a statement from the writer. Was this universal in scope or was this directed towards a particular group of individuals? If applicable, seek out what the writer may have said in other such instances. For instance (concerning the controversial text above); note that Paul also in the same book recognizes women who pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). When one is investigating any such passage of controversy, one needs to keep in mind who it is that wrote the passage and to whom it was that would be originally reading the text.
3. For controversial problems, investigate both sides of the equation.
It is also important when investigating controversial passages to seek counsel from both sides of the theological aisle. For instance, a Calvinist should not limit herself to only the writings of John Calvin. She should also investigate what John Wesley had to say on this issue. Or, if a complementarian is investigating the role of women in the church, he should not only read the works of Wayne Grudem or John Piper. He should also read the works of Gordon Fee or Stanley Grenz. This will provide the exegete understanding about how those of differing views examine the text at hand. Note: this writer has been greatly challenged by Romans 9. I have found great value through the works of John Calvin and John Wesley. Most notably, I have actually gravitated towards a Congruist understanding of divine sovereignty and human freedom by the works of Millard J. Erickson, Norman Geisler, and Thomas Aquinas.
4. Go back to the original words.
Understand that there is no perfect translation. The New International Version, New American Standard Bible, New Living Translation, and the great King James Version are imperfect translations. No translation is perfect. All translations include some decision-making on the part of the translator. For this reason, the expositor should learn to do word studies. One does not need to be a master of Greek and Hebrew to do word studies. A simple package from Logos software will allow one to do a good deal of investigation into the original words of Scripture. If Logos is not an option, buy a good interlinear. An interlinear is a Greek New Testament with the English equivalent underneath. A Strong’s Concordance or Mounce’s Complete Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words will do the expositor a world of good.
5. Do historical research.
Don’t be afraid to do some historical research. Face the facts: the Bible is 2,000 years removed from the expositor’s timeframe. Jesus did not live in modern America. He was not of pasty white complexion nor was He of an anemic build. Jesus worked with His hands and most likely had to do some mountain-climbing in order to get across some of the areas in which He traveled. Jesus participated in the culture of the day. This means that He drank wine (Matthew 11:19) and that He participated in Hanukkah (John 10:22). Does this indicate that the Christian should participate in either of these? Do your research to find out. Nonetheless, the expositor will need to investigate the historical context of the Scripture to understand its intended meaning.
6. Learn that the best commentary on the Bible is…the Bible.
The best commentary of the Bible is the Bible. This means that the Bible provides answers to controversial passages when one investigates the entire message of the Bible. For example: one must keep a balanced view when dealing with the nature of God. One cannot forget that God is love (1 John 4:8), but one cannot forget that God is holy, too (Revelation 4:8). Therefore, one must learn to cross-reference when studying Scripture. A topical Bible or Thompson’s Chain Reference Bible may prove to be invaluable resources for the expositor.
7. Read a variety of translations.
As noted earlier, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. Translation is an interpretive process. With that in mind, it should be noted that one should read a variety of translations. Some translations come with the approval of a particular denomination. The King James Version (or Authorized Version) is an Anglican translation while the Holman Christian Standard Bible is a Southern Baptist translation. Some translations hold a more liberal slant (some would argue that such is the case with the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Bible). While some translations hold a more conservative slant (e.g. English Standard Version). It is important to use a wide variety of translations when one studies the Word of God. If one examines the articles on this website, one will probably note that a variety of translations are used for different articles. The New American Standard Bible is used for this particular article.
8. Be willing to admit when the Bible leads away from your preconceived notions.
Finally, and this is most important, to be a good expositor of the Bible, one must note the biases that the reader may hold. In such a case, when one’s worldview is contrasted with the teachings of the Word of God, accept the Scripture’s teaching over your preconceived notions. Be willing to admit that you might be wrong in how you view certain things. Holding such humility will allow God to mold the expositor by the Word instead of molding the Word into one’s ideology. Remember that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Also remember the classic words from Isaiah 55:8 where God says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). If God’s ways differ from the expositor’s, God’s ways should be chosen to be followed.
Hermeneutics is not always an easy process. But as the old adage goes, “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.” This is especially true when it comes to biblical interpretation. For the pastor or Sunday school teacher, there is an even greater responsibility to get the truths of God right. For as Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48). This is a responsibility that this pastor takes very seriously. While none of us will agree on every minute detail, we can and should agree on the core essential truths found in God’s Word. For I had rather be despised by humanity and loved by God for proclaiming truth, than to be despised by God and loved by humanity for promoting lies.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New American Standard Bible. La Habra: Lockman Foundation, 1995.
Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
© 2014. Pastor Brian Chilton