* * *
In many places in the Scriptures, the believer is encouraged to study the written Word as the foundation for a holy, godly and fruitful life before God and man. But how are we to study this unified, but daunting, compilation of sixty-six books written by over forty authors between nineteen hundred and thirty-five hundred years ago in languages and cultures that may be totally foreign to us? Enter the science of hermeneutics.
To understand hermeneutical principles is to be equipped for an intelligent study of the Word of God, tending greatly to our approval before God as workmen that do not need to be ashamed.
In our previous nine Shofars, we've been treated to sound instruction by Dr. David L. Cooper, founder of the Biblical Research Society, in interpreting Scripture, a critical skill to master, particularly in an age in which the Babel of interpretations is legion. With "Rules of Interpretation," a study that will span perhaps seventeen Shofars, we are engaging what will be our most extensive and detailed study thus far on the topic and continuing to hone our skills in rightly dividing the Word of Truth that we might be clear and accurate voices for the Lord. Let us apply ourselves. - Editor
* * *
RULES OF INTERPRETATION
* * *
In our last Shofar, the section of "Rules of Interpretation" that was presented was entitled, "Part Three: Rules of Interpretation Proper - Rule 1: Discover the Author, the People Addressed, and the Life and Times of the People Involved in a Given Case." what is presented herein is Dr. Cooper's "Explanation" of Rule 1. To review Rule 1, please go to Rule 1.
Part Three: Rules of Interpretation Proper
The First Step in Interpretation
In Our First Study
In our first study of the laws of interpretation we have seen the importance of this subject. Most of our troubles and ills are due to misunderstandings of what others have said. These misunderstandings are always the occasion of hard feelings and often trouble. Much, therefore, of our troubles and difficulties would be avoided if we only understood accurately and clearly what the other person says, promises, and the like. The same thing is true with reference to his understanding us and our intentions and promises.
At first glance one may say that this is such a simple rule that it needs little or no discussion. Such a view is indeed superficial. Very few people ever observe this rule in their Bible-reading. In my making this statement I am speaking from observation and my contacts with people. In tens of thousands of instances, I see how the Scriptures are generally treated.
Example: Each State of the Union Has its Own Laws
Each state of the Union has its own laws. What is law in California may not necessarily be on the statute books of the state of New York and vice versa. Of course basically the laws of each state are practically the same, but local conditions of course make necessary changes in amendments or modifications that are not required in another state. The same thing is true with reference to the laws of the United States in relation to other nations. English law is one thing; German law is another. We must understand those things if we are to comply with the laws of the country in which we live or are residing temporarily. The same principle holds true in the Scriptures. God spoke certain things to the people in the Patriarchal Age. His revelations met the conditions then existing. It seemed that the Lord dealt with the individuals and tribes or clans during those primitive times. Finally, when Israel developed into a nation, He delivered her from Egyptian bondage and delivered unto her the Mosaic Code together with her sacrificial and ceremonial worship. Thus Moses and the prophets spoke directly to Israel and their outlook as a rule was from the legal standpoint.
Example: When the Fullness of the Time Came, God Brought His Son into the World
When the fullness of the time came, God brought His Son into the world who suffered and died in order that we might have redemption full and free through Him. He has thus opened up a new and living way by means of the veil of His flesh, which was rent on the cross. He has thus entered into a new covenant with all believers who will accept His invitation to come and find rest. Thus what was spoken to Israel nationally is not necessarily applicable to the church of God today and vice versa. A failure to recognize this plain distinction has led to untold confusion. Many of the older theologians made no distinction between the children of Israel and the church of God. Thus indiscriminately they applied what the prophets spoke to Israel nationally to the church of today. They were always, however, careful to see that the curses and the threats hurled at national Israel are not to be applied to the church.
Example: The Book of Psalms
The Book of Psalms is Israel's songbook. In it are expressed the national hopes as well as the longing of the individual soul for God and a closer walk with Him. To ignore the fact that the Psalms constitute Israel's songbook and to apply them indiscriminately to the believers today is to pervert the Scriptures. Most of these hymns are nationalistic in their outlook and are spoken either directly to Israel as a nation or concerning her. Most of them speak either of Israel's Messiah or the great Messianic Age when He, the King of Israel, comes to reign in glory and power. There are, however, certain psalms that are of an individual nature, such as Psalms 1, 23, and 25. Here are promises that are made to individual believers who are trusting in God.
Example: The Book of Job
Again, let us look at the Book of Job. One must study the situation presented in this book in order to interpret it properly. After the introduction, which consists of chapters 1 and 2, we enter into the speeches that were made by Job and his would-be comforters; These are found in chapters 3-37. As one studies these carefully, one sees that all of these men made incorrect statements. Some of them, however, are absolutely contrary to fact. Job's friends did not understand the great fundamental principles of the truth as a rule. He, however, did understand them more nearly correctly than they, and yet he at times approached the point of blasphemy against God. That Job's friends did misunderstand and did misrepresent God is clear from the statement of the Almighty when He appeared upon the scene: "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" (Job 38:2). The Lord's charging these men with darkening counsel without knowledge shows that they were not inspired in their utterances. Many of the things which they said were correct, but many were incorrect, and some positively wrong. Since Job, along with his friends, did make mistakes in their statements, we conclude that those chapters which thus present their speeches were not originally inspired. But let me hasten to emphasize the fact that the writer of the Book of Job was infallibly inspired and has given us a faithful account of what was said and done by these actors in this great drama. There is a difference between the inspiration of the sacred writer and the lack of inspiration on the part of the original speakers and actors. I might compare the infallibility of the Spirit by which the writer of the book was guided with this ediphone into which I am now speaking. As I talk, this machine records faithfully everything that I say. Thus it gives an exact record of what I speak. If I chose, I could make false statements and even contradictions. This machine would record the contradictions and the false statements that I make just as accurately as it will the correct ones. Thus we conclude that the entire Book of Job was infallibly inspired by the Spirit of God who told us exactly what was said and done on this occasion. But it is a mistake to quote any of the utterances of Job and his friends and present them as God's infallible revelation to man - because they are not. It is simply the inspired record of what men said and did, often in the heat of controversy. But the prologue, chapters 1 and 2, and the sequel to the story, chapters 38-42, are revelations that the sacred writer made to us as he spoke infallibly by the Spirit. A person may therefore quote anything in chapters 1, 2 and 38-42 as the inspired revelation of God. But he dare not lift the material found in chapters 3-37 to the level of a revelation from God.
Example: The Book of Ecclesiastes
What has been said about Job is correct also with reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book the Wise Man tells us how he thought that he could find pleasure and amusement in this thing and that thing. In other words, he gives his spiritual biography. Some of the things that he said and thought were correct whereas others were not. Finally, the Holy Spirit guided him infallibly to write this spiritual biography, which he concluded with this divine revelation: "13. This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard: Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. 14. For God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14).
Example: The New Testament
Let us now come to the New Testament. We see the four records of the one Gospel in the form of the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Tradition tells us that Matthew wrote his record of the Gospel for the Jews, that Mark wrote for the Romans, and that Luke wrote for the Greeks. The historical facts seem to support this tradition. John wrote to convince unbelievers and to combat certain heresies and false systems of philosophy that were disquieting to the early disciples.
There are certain ones who do follow out this principle to its logical conclusion, but they make an exception of the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians--even though these Epistles were written to specific churches. They claim these "prison Epistles" upon the basis that they speak of the body of believers as the body of Christ and declare that there was a change - a radical change - at the end of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 28). The church from Pentecost until then was Jewish and is the bride of Christ. But believers from 63 A.D. and onward until the rapture (for Acts of the Apostles brings the history of the church to 63 A.D., to the end of Paul's second year of imprisonment in Rome) constitute the body of Christ and are separate from the bride. Those, however, who accept Christ after the rapture of the body of Christ and during the Tribulation, will complete the bride of Christ (generally speaking this is the position to which a number of excellent brethren have been led in their rigidly adopting the principle under discussion while ignoring other plain, evident facts).
Let us look at the facts more particularly. There is but one gospel. The New Testament knows of but one gospel. Paul pronounced an anathema upon anyone who preached any other gospel than that which he preached (Galatians 1:8,9). This one gospel is called "an eternal gospel" in Revelation 14:6 (margin, R.V.). When Paul was giving the plain simple truths concerning Christ's dying for our sins, being buried, being raised for our justification, and offering salvation to all who accept it, he was speaking a plain simple gospel message - "the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24). Paul, who preached the plain simple gospel and thus led men to a saving knowledge of the truth, likewise went about "preaching the kingdom" (Acts 20:25). In the last two verses of Acts Luke tells us that Paul remained in his own hired dwelling and received all that went in unto him, "preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him." Thus the Apostle Paul preached the good news concerning salvation through Christ and the good news concerning the kingdom of God. So does every true gospel preacher. This full gospel message is to be preached, according to Matthew 28:19,20, to the end of this Dispensation of Grace, by the church. After the church is gone and there arise a hundred and forty-four thousand Jewish servants of God (Revelation, chap. 7) they will go about preaching "the gospel of the kingdom" for a testimony unto all the nations and then the end of the age will come (Matthew 24:14). In their preaching this gospel of the kingdom they will be proclaiming the same message that the Apostle Paul did when he preached the good news concerning the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.
The Acts of the Apostles, though written at first to Theophilus, is for our edification and enlightenment. In it there are various speakers. The sermons that were preached are of inestimable value to us today.
Though the Roman Epistle was directed and sent to the church in the world metropolis at that time, it is a general treatise on the gospel. It sets forth the great fundamental doctrines of the gospel of Christ and is for everyone who sustains the same relationship to God that the Roman Christians did. The letters to the church at Corinth were sent primarily to the body of believers in that city. And yet in the first verse of the first Epistle Paul says that the letter is for everyone, regardless of where he is or where he lives, just so he believes in the Lord Jesus. Thus those letters are of universal application to those who sustain the same relationship to Christ and God as did those Corinthians. What is said of these letters and the Roman Epistle may be correctly said of all the other Epistles to churches found in the New Testament. Each of the twenty-seven books found in the New Testament is an integral part of a whole. Each part has its special function in revealing the mind and will of God to us today. What Paul said in regard to the Old Testament is correct with reference to the New also. "16. Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: 17. that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16,17).
The knowledge of certain rules of interpretation and the observance of these rules when studying the Scriptures is very important and helpful in arriving at a clear understanding of God's Word.
* * *
Links to prior studies in the "Rules of Interpretation" series may found in our Library
Reprinted by permission of the Biblical Research Society, where other outstanding studies by Dr. Cooper may be found.