Principles for the Prophetic Study of the Bible

In the business community, it is said that the three most important factors in the potential success of your business are “Location, location and location.”

In the world of studying the Bible, the three most important factors in the potential interpretation of a verse are “Context, context and context.”

Biblical context is described a couple of ways:

· Immediate Textual context: What do the verses before and after the one in question say? The paragraphs before and after the verse in question? Knowing the whole thought from which this one verse is taken is a key part of understanding the meaning of the verse.

· Larger Scriptural context: What does the rest of the Bible have to say about the subject that your verse is discussing? Always use scripture to interpret scripture.

· Cultural context: What did the statement in that verse mean to its first readers, its intended audience? If you’re looking at a verse in an epistle, what would it have mean to the people that the epistle was addressed to? Understanding the cultural context is important to understanding the current meaning of the verse.

I knew a woman years ago who was not a Christian. She liked the Bible, but didn’t like how Christians behaved. Her favorite illustration was a preacher who didn’t like the hairstyles of the day, so he preached Matthew 24:17 (“Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house.”) and declared, “top knot go down” decreeing that bee-hive hairdos were unbiblical. That strikes me as an abuse of the principle of context, in all three forms. She was still bitter against preachers because of that.

Slight change of direction: When studying the Bible, there are, I was taught, two ways to study it: I can study deductively, they said with a frown: I can bring my presuppositions, my theology and my pet doctrines to the Bible and look for verses that support what I already believe. Deductive Study is inferior, they said, and I’m not sure they were wrong.

Or I can study it inductively, and this was encouraged: I can lay aside all of my preconceived ideas and doctrines and let the Word teach me: I sit under it, and let the Word be my teacher, and as it teaches me, I develop my ideas and doctrines. I don’t know anybody who teaches Inductive Study who follows it completely (they all also study doctrinal texts), but it is certainly preferable than the “proof-texting” of deductive study. Inductive Study is good, of course, and it’s “the right way” to study the Bible.

I find myself torn here. These are valuable principles! I was taught these principles in my training, and they have helped me immensely. I’ve taught them to many others, presumably to their benefit. If their founders had practiced these principles, many cults and heretical groups would never have gotten started. (If their followers had practiced these principles, they would not have been led astray.)

These are valuable – nay: essential – principles for serious study of the Word of God. This is the good stuff here.

The only problem is that the Bible itself does not consistently follow them. Time and time again, the Bible takes itself out of context. Time and time again, the New Testament approaches the Old Testament with a method that is neither deductive not inductive.

Any readers that have been through Bible College will quickly label me as a heretic or worse, so I offer some illustrations:

In the first chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter blows up these principles:

"For it is written in the Book of Psalms:
'Let his dwelling place be desolate,
And let no one live in it'; and,

'Let another take his office.' --Acts 1:20

Peter is quoting from two places in Psalms in order to justify filling the position among the 12 apostles which Judas had abandoned. He starts by quoting Psalm 69 where David is writing, yet again, about “his foes”; then he quotes Psalm 109 where David is whining about the “wicked and deceitful men” who oppose him. Neither psalm is considered a Messianic psalm.

The Gospel of Mark begins with a couple of Old Testament verses to explain John the Baptist’s entrance on the scene:

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the Prophets:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
3 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’” --Mark 1:1-3

The first quotation is from Malachi chapter 3, and it is about the coming of the Messiah in the usual Old Testament vocabulary that mixes his first coming as a suffering servant with his second coming as a conquering king, but it is a Messianic passage: the context (according to the traditional rules) say that the verse quoted is indeed about the one who is coming before the Messiah. All is well and good.

The second passage is from Isaiah 40, and it’s clearly speaking to a discouraged nation as it tries to cope with a conquering army from Babylon knocking down their front door, preparing to haul them into captivity. The only way to know that Isaiah is talking about the Messiah is by Mark’s completely-out-of-context interpretation of it.

In these two passages, the apostle Peter and Mark, the disciple of the apostle Paul, both break the rules that I was taught about studying the Bible. They quote verses completely out of context. They interpret those verses in a way that is neither Deductive nor Inductive.

There are dozens more. John 12:17; John 10:25; Luke 2:46; Matthew 26:31; Luke 20:17….

I’ve come to describe it as Revelatory Interpretation. Looking at these passages Inductively, it appears that the Spirit of God occasionally takes verses, sentences, even brief phrases out of context and breathes new meaning, new application to them that their author never imagined.

I had an odd experience a few months ago. I was walking through my woods, on my favorite trails, and I was talking to God. OK, what I was doing was more like whining at God. I’d been going on for quite a while and when I stopped to take a breath, He interrupted me: "Are you done yet?"

It startled me. He didn’t comment about anything I had said (or whined). Rather, He reminded me of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and then He completely re-interpreted it for me in ways I’d never considered, never heard taught. It completely defused my whining, and the self-pitying attitude that was behind it, and frankly, that lesson has changed the course of my life.

He did the same thing to me that He’d done to Peter and Mark (and no, I am not comparing myself to them, other than the fact that we’re all under His teaching): He re-interpreted the Word in a way that was neither Deductive nor Inductive, in a way that disregarded context. He defied all the rules that men had taught me about interpreting the Bible, but He brought Life to it.

I am not arguing for a wholesale abandonment of the principles of sound Biblical interpretation! There is great wisdom in them, and they are tools both powerful and useful. When I have opportunity, I teach many of these tools because they’re helpful.

Rather, I am proposing that we implement those principles differently. Let us, as the Inductive method teaches, sit under the Word to learn from it, but let us also sit under the Author of the Word, and let Him teach His Word to us. If we lock ourselves in to what the Book says, then we’re perhaps in danger of becoming the right-wing kooks that the world already thinks we are. But if we treat the Word as “living and active” then it becomes “…useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

And He doesn't always respect context.


Joshua Barnes said...

Interesting commentary.

I've found inductive reasoning necessary and useful to know what God has setup for your life.

I've found deductive reasoning useful once you've arrived at sound theological positions. For it stands that if you're going to offer a defense of an argument that's best done, deductively.

In the final exerpt, I think this best applied through personal revelation. But, in fairness, the context of your revelation cannot stray from the overall themes in the bible and accurate theological positions.

For example, if you suddenly come to the insight that Jesus weeping over lazerus means that he's sad because he HAS to raise him from the dead...well that doesn't make any sense in light of the whole of scripture thus your revelation is inductively inaccurate. But to re-interpret a meaning that is slightly out of context simply demonstrates the the words are alive...but must be couched carefully since you run the risk of being told "hey, that's out of context!"...

Good commentary.

David said...

Good perspective, Seraphim: prophetic revelation from Scripture cannot contravene the rest of the Word. How many cults have started that way?

At the same time, just today, I heard a man preaching revelation from Genesis 3:16 & Ephesians 5:25-28 that clearly contravenes some powerful traditional doctrines about women in the Church (he did support his position exegetically), but it flies in the face of foundational doctrine in many denominations. I guess I can't let traditional doctrine dictate the limits of God's revelation either.

Yet another delicate balance in the Kingdom.