Tag Archives: biblical interpretation

Finding the Correct Meaning

In this chapter, there is another question that deserves to be considered. Even if we have the right books, the right words, and we have those words adequately translated, what about the meaning? The Bible was written in other languages, for other peoples in other cultures. So how can we, living in this part of the world, this far down through the centuries, feel confident that we have really found the correct meaning? The only way, I believe, is to pick up the Bible, read it through, and see what we can learn about God. I am so grateful for the more than one hundred times I’ve gone through all sixty-six books in company with others. Each time we do it there are certain questions that arise. Some of them are simple ones that are quite readily resolved. I thought we might look at some of those first.

The best loved English version in all history has been the King James Version. But reading through the Bible, what does one do with a passage like Habakkuk 2:7: “Thou shalt be for booties unto them.” (KJV) What does that mean? Can you see booties hanging from the rear view mirror in a car? Is that what that is? Or what about Job 41:18, “By his neesings a light doth shine” (KJV). Have you seen any neesings lately? Now the old Engish word booties meant loot, or plunder. Neesings meant sneezings. Exodus 28:11 speaks of “Ouches of gold” (KJV). That would seem like something the dentist should be concerned about. And yet it actually meant settings in jewelry. Luke 17:9 says, “I trow not” (KJV). Have you trowed lately? That actually means “I think not.”

These are not errors in the King James. It is just that with the passage of time, about a thousand words in that Bible have changed their meaning, in fact sometimes the meaning is completely reversed. But there are easy remedies for the student of Scripture. Whole books have been written on the archaic words in the King James Version. Another option is to look these words up in a Bible dictionary or a commentary. There is even the revision called the New King James. The meanings given in the paragraph above were taken from that modernized version of the King James. Another option is to compare the KJV with any other modern version and the meaning of most of these unfamiliar words would become clear.

A slightly more significant change in the meaning of a word is in Romans 1:13, KJV: “Often times I purposed to come unto you, but was let hitherto.” Well, if Paul was let, why didn’t he go? “Let” in those days did not mean to permit; it meant to prevent or hinder. This is still the word often used in the game of tennis. If you’ve served and your ball has hit the net and dropped into the appropriate square on the other side, it is not a “net ball,” it is supposed to be a “let ball.” At Wimbledon it is always a “let ball,” which means a ball that was hindered or prevented from proceeding on to the server’s goal. In Romans 1:13, Paul intended to visit Rome, but he was hindered from doing so.

An even more significant illustration of meaning change is in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, KJV: “We which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.” Paul surely wasn’t saying that when the Lord comes and the dead rise, we who are alive won’t want the dead to go up first, we’ll prevent them from doing so. If that were true, we wouldn’t be very safe to save, doing that to those former saints now rising! But it has no such meaning. The old English word “prevent” actually means “to precede, to go before.” Now the passage makes sense. “Prevent” in those days did not mean prevent, it meant to precede.

The early Christians were grieving that some of their loved ones had died before the Lord returned. They had been under the impression that they would live to see Him come. What would you tell a dying Christian who said in disappointment “I had hoped I would live to see the Lord come?” There’s a beautiful message in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul says, “Look, the dead are at no disadvantage. We who are alive and remain shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Who will rise first? The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air. This is a great paragraph to read at funerals. But it has to be translated right. Not that it is an error. It’s just that the key word has changed meaning through the years. The passage is a great message of comfort when it is properly translated into modern speech.

Another puzzling passage, which sometimes gives rise to strange theology, is in John 20:17, KJV. Mary sees Jesus on resurrection Sunday and falls at His feet to worship Him. And Jesus says, “Touch me not.” Now why couldn’t she touch Him? Jesus explains: “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Does that mean that if Mary had touched Jesus, He would not have been able to go up to heaven, and the whole plan of salvation would have come to nothing? Was her restraint that morning as important as the crucifixion? That is impossible. That would really violate common sense. So one needs to look more carefully. In the original language, there are two ways of saying “don’t do” something. One is, “don’t begin to do it.” The other is “don’t go on doing it.” In this text Jesus was saying, “Don’t go on holding me. Don’t cling to me.” The modern versions all have this correctly. Then it is a perfectly gracious message. There is nothing arbitrary about it at all.

Another important one is John 2:4. Perhaps you remember the wedding at Cana, when they ran out of wine and Mary said to Jesus, “They need some wine.” Did He turn to his mother and say, “Woman, what have I to do with thee” (KJV)? Let’s say you have a son who is not responding too politely when his mother asks for help doing the dishes. So you think, “Well, at worship we’ll read about how polite Jesus always was to His mother. Why don’t we read the Gospel of John for worship?” If you do that, John 1 will be all right. But then you will come to John 2 and Cana. You are reading, hoping that your son will listen and see how polite Jesus always was. And then Jesus says to His mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” And your son says, “That is what I will do next time Mother asks me to dry the dishes. I’ll say, `Woman, what have I to do with thee?'” Then you’ll wish you had started reading some other gospel!

You know that can’t be the case. God is love and love is never rude. You know that Jesus wasn’t rude. Once again we need to get back into the language, the culture, and the idiom of the day. “Woman” can mean wife or mother or whatever the circumstances called for. What Jesus said was the equivalent of “mother,” not just “woman.” “Mother, how is it you bring that problem to Me? I have never performed a miracle before. My hour has not yet come.” I once heard a Jewish scholar say, “One thing is for sure, Jesus spoke politely to His mother in the idiom of the day.” In the Phillips translation, it says, “Mother, why do you bring that problem to Me?”

On Biblical Hermeneutics (The Science of Biblical Interpretation)

Recently many people are suggesting that support for a Yes vote at the General Conference is grounded in a “new hermeneutic,” reading the Bible differently than the way the pioneers of Adventism read it. There is some truth in this suggestion and it bears some careful investigation. The implication some suggest is that the new hermeneutic results in a fundamental distortion of the Bible’s message regarding the role of women, a message that is clear and unequivocal. To read the Bible any other way is to place oneself in rebellion against the clear teachings of God. This is a serious accusation and I believe it arises out of a shallow understanding of hermeneutics.

There are in fact two basic hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), but the right and wrong of this issue is not as simple as some would make it. There is a way to read the Bible that is seemingly safe and secure, but often does not withstand detailed investigation. That way is sometimes called the “proof-text method.” It involves using a concordance to select passages from all over the Bible that seem to address a particular topic and attempting to understand their collective weight in light of current questions and concerns. At its best this method is a form of biblical theology, gathering everything the Bible says on a topic and seeking to learn from that data how to understand the mind of God on that topic. This method has been used within the Adventist Church from its very beginning and is quite efficient in quickly exposing biblical evidence related to a topic. It leads to relatively easy conclusions that work for a time, but tends to gloss over many things along the way. At its worst it is a powerful way to pick and choose one’s evidence and confirm preconceived opinions. At its worst it appears to honor the Bible while ignoring or distorting the message of the Bible. The selective method without exegetical (careful understanding of the original context) controls makes it too easy for one’s personal biases to determine what texts count as evidence and which ones don’t. The quality of the outcome can depend more on the character of the interpreter than the evidence itself.

The other hermeneutic is grounded less in concordances and more in broad reading of Scripture. One explores the Bible as a whole, taking it book by book and seeking to understand the questions the Bible writers were addressing and the issues they were facing. The interpreter recognizes that God meets people where they are (there is plenty of Scriptural evidence for that assertion– see the opening chapter of my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World), so the teaching at any given point in the Bible may not be a final word on all related issues, but may be a specific answer to a specific issue in that time and place. Understanding the meaning of each text in its context is crucial to developing a biblical theology that can address today’s issues. In the Bible God sometimes allows or even seem to approve of actions that elsewhere are treated as wrong (how about the seeming approval of polygamy in 2 Sam 12:8?). So comparing Scripture with Scripture may still leave one short of explicit answers to every one of today’s questions, requiring one to explore where God’s revelation is trending. This is the method that has led Christians to abolish slavery, even though the New Testament seems not to forbid it (Eph 6:4-9).

At its best this method takes the whole Bible and its original contexts into account. It helps us discern what is clear in God’s revelation and what is not. It avoids the selectivity of the proof-text method and provides safeguards against our natural human biases. But this method also has its limitations. Few people have the desire or the time to master the Bible as a whole. Even for those who do, the process is lengthy and subject to human forgetfulness. In addition, understanding the context of each biblical story and message is best served by knowing the biblical languages and a great deal about ancient history and culture. This makes it easy to leave deep Bible study to the experts, who may become our authorities on what the Bible says rather than allowing every member to do their own diligence in the Word. In addition, projecting the “trajectory” of what God is doing in this world is often necessary, but it too introduces a human element into the process that can project trajectories God Himself might not recognize. So this method is not a fool-proof answer to all questions when the church is divided.

I have used both methods and see that there are strengths and weaknesses in each. A healthy church will not be limited in its approaches. But the outcome of my decades of study in hermeneutics indicates to me that God has not chosen to satisfy our curiosity about all matters in His Word. At creation God granted human beings intellect, reason and considerable freedom. Such freedom is best exercised when we don’t know the answer to everything. God calls us to sharpen our minds by wrestling with the difficult issues that He has chosen not to settle. So when the church, after years of study, remains divided on a question, humility and kindness are the appropriate response. Everyone agrees that the Bible is clear on how we should treat one another. What a shame it would be if we hammer others on things that in the Bible are not truly clear, while transgressing those teachings of the Bible that all agree are clear.