Summary: Five principles about interpreting Scripture, especially prophetic passages.
As an evangelical Christian, I have a high view of the authority of Scripture. I do believe the Bible is God’s Word to us. It is revelation from God in human words, not merely human ideas about God. That is why it is authoritative.
In the language of 2 Timothy 3:15-17, the Bible is “…the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Paul is referring primarily to the First Testament writings, the Bible of his day, but the church has long recognized the “God-breathedness” of the New Testament writings as well.
In my time at Seminary and in the years since, the authority and interpretation of Scripture has been a special theme of mine. The formulation I like best came from a world-Christian document called the Lausanne Covenant. The International Congress on World Evangelization was held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974. The gathering was called by a committee headed by Rev. Billy Graham and drew more than 2,300 evangelical leaders, from 150 countries.
In the Covenant they produced the delegates wrote this about the Authority of Scripture:
"We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God’s word to accomplish his purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all men and women. For God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God."(1)
This is a high view of Scripture that goes so far as to say the Bible is “the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” This formulation, however, recognizes the crucial task of interpretation. All that is found in the Bible is not necessarily “affirmed” as the positive teaching of Scripture. Only what is affirmed is without error. Let me give three examples.
1. The Importance of Context
There is the old story of the man who used the open and point method of getting Biblical guidance. At random he opened the Bible and put his finger down on a passage in the New Testament. It read, “Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). Not liking that, he turned a few pages and tried again, only to read: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:37). Finally, he tried once more to get guidance, different guidance. This time the verse his finger pointed to read, “What you are about to do, do quickly,” (John 13:27).
The point, of course, is not to take verses of Scripture out of context. When we do, that is when we can support almost anything from Scripture – from the phrase “born again” referring to reincarnation, to support for the inferiority of certain racial groups.
Good interpretation is in part, looking at the context of any particular verse. We first begin with the immediate surrounding verses; then the chapter and book it is in; then whether it is Old or New Testament; at other similar teachings; and finally the largest context – all of the Bible. As many have pointed out, the Bible is its own best interpreter.
Only statements of the Bible taken in context may be something the Bible positively affirms.
2. The Importance of Original Intent
A second question after the immediate context is what could the first audience for this passage understand as the primary meaning of what is said? What was the original intent? This is an important question for prophecy, as well as for poetry and historical and/or passages touching on what we would call areas of science. If we jump immediately to what seems to make sense to us without reference to what would have made sense to them, we can get it very wrong.
In Revelation 9:16-19 we read of “horses and riders”:
"The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million. I heard their number….
"Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths.