Written by: Rev. Michael Rogers
Article source: JOY! Magazine
At first glance, this brief dialogue above from Alice in Wonderland may seem to be word games from the mind of Lewis Carrol. Unfortunately, however, we’re living in that reality. Postmodern philosophers and linguists tell us “there are no absolute truth statements” and “it’s impossible to understand an author’s intention”. But if there are no absolute truths, then these statements are incorrect. If we cannot understand an author’s intention then why do they write so much and expect us to understand it?
Your opinion is not always correct and valid
Despite logical inconsistencies in postmodernism, this worldview has infected everyday life and has poisoned all of us to some degree. We see this in the inane mantras, “That is your truth” or “This is my truth”. It’s even crept into Christianity and can be seen in so-called Bible studies where everyone’s opinion of a verse is considered equally valid and there’s no correct interpretation.
He who controls the narrative controls the people
Humpty Dumpty rightly understood that whoever gets to define meaning is the master. As Christians, we know that the Triune God is Lord and He tells us what is true. But how do we ensure that when we read the Bible we’re interpreting it correctly? We need to be sure to use the same hermeneutic as Jesus and the apostles. The word ‘hermeneutic’ is a technical term that refers to the principles or method of interpretation. The first part of hermeneutics is exegesis, drawing the meaning out of the passage. The second step is to interpret the passage in light of Christ’s coming. The third is to apply it to our lives.
How did Jesus and the Apostles interpret the Bible?
Well, they certainly understood the literal, historical meaning of the text (exegesis) and they interpreted every complete passage in a Christ-centred way. The first step – one that’s desperately needed today – is to figure out the original context. That means to consider who is speaking, who was the original audience, when they lived (before or after Christ, etc.), and the cultural setting of the time. In other words, we need to know the historical context as best we can. But more importantly, we need to see the context within the passage, the book, and the Bible as a whole. Study Bibles, commentaries, atlases, and other resources all help with this. Once we have determined the original context we can move to interpretation.
Common misuse of Philippians 4:13
An example of what not to do is the common misuse of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. This is a wonderful verse, but it doesn’t mean I am guaranteed to win SA’s Got Talent, play soccer for Liverpool FC, or become the CEO of Apple. Paul wasn’t writing to you or me, but the believers in Philippi in a specific situation. Paul is encouraging them to learn contentment. When Paul says he can do all things through Christ, in context, he’s saying that he can be content whether he’s experiencing poverty or abundance. This is a promise that in Christ we can learn contentment – not complete your bucket-list.
Looking through Christ-centred lenses
It becomes more complex when we come to the Old Testament. For one, we are separated by more time and cultural distance. Secondly, Christ’s coming is the fulfilment of all Old Testament promises (cf. 2 Cor 1:20). This is clear in the fact that Jesus saw Himself as the true Temple (Jn 2:19), the New Testament authors saw Jesus as the true Israel (Mat 2:15) and the final Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). So we have must read the Bible with the same Christ-centred lenses as the Apostles.
Jesus is the fulfilment of every prophecy
To give full teaching on Christ-centred interpretation is beyond the scope of this article. But I want to encourage you to begin seeing Christ as the fulfilment, in either His person or His work, of every passage in the Bible. If your interpretation could be taught in a Synagogue or a Mosque without any problem, then you have a big problem! I think most Christians know this instinctively. For example, there are no New Testament passages that tell us that the almost-sacrifice of Isaac and the ram taking his place is a pointer to the crucifixion. Yet we cannot read that passage without our minds and hearts drawn to Christ taking our place on the Cross.
Finally, faithful Christ-centred interpretation must move us to action
Some pastors may give a dogmatic application that is simply not biblical. For example, saying couples must go on a weekly date night. While this may be a helpful suggestion, it’s a very middle class, urban application. How would a poor person in a rural area obey this? If you’re going to make a dogmatic application then make sure it’s biblical and is connected to or flows from the text you’re studying.
Words cannot mean what we want them to mean
So Humpty Dumpty was wrong, words cannot have whatever meaning you want them to have. Jesus is Lord and we must read our Bibles in submission to Him. When the Scriptures clash with our preconceptions and cultural norms, then they must be forsaken or else we will have a great fall!
Michael Rogers is a pastor at Heritage Baptist Church in Johannesburg and lecturer at Mukhanyo’s Johannesburg Campus. He’s married to Natalie and together they have three children.
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