Studying the Scriptures
Observation, Interpretation, and then Application are the major steps in studying God's word.
Frequently we delude ourselves into thinking we understand what God has said and wants us to do, when we've merely skimmed the surface, skipping over God's revelation until we come to a word or phrase that sounds familiar to us. We then invest the familiar words with our own meaning and come away with an understanding or interpretation that is frequently a distortion or sometimes a perversion of God's word.
We develop a base for accurate interpretation and application by first practicing accurate observation: noting what words, grammar, syntax, structure and style the author is using to communicate. We then interpret the Bible consistently and literally in accord with the passage's contexts: linguistic, grammatical, literary, structural, historical, cultural, revelational, and applicational.
- Linguistic - we recognize that words have a variety of meanings and that our task is to determine which meaning the author intended his original audience to understand.
- Grammatical - words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs follow the normal laws of the author's language are to be interpreted as such.
- Literary - authors used numerous stylistic and rhetorical elements and figures of speech to develop and apply their concepts. Our task is to be attuned to an author's literary style and argument so we can determine when he's using a figure of speech or rhetorical device.
- Structural - authors arranged their thoughts in discernable units and patterns of argument, often to make specific theological points, and at other times to aid communication and retention. Our task is to identify the basic structure of a passage, chapter, section, and book, so we know what point an author is making at any given point in his writing.
- Historical/Cultural - authors wrote from a specific time and place in history to an audience in a specific historical, geographical, theological, political, sociological and cultural setting. We must understand the times of the author and his audience before we can understand why he wrote as he did, and apply his words to our day.
- Revelational - one must recognize the progressive nature of God's communication to man in order to accurately interpret. Authors wrote in a theological context, that often changed as God gave additional revelation to later authors which expanded, clarified, fulfilled or even changed previous revelation. For example, the OT dietary prohibitions changed in the NT.
- Applicational - a key to accurate application, is being able to state what the author (and God) wanted the original audience to do in response to God's revelation. It is only after we determine a passage's application to its original audience that we can determine the principle behind that application, and then the applicability of that principle to a modern audience.
- We've concluded our first round of Observation when we've identified all the key words and phrases in a passage and can answer the questions: "Who, What, When, Where, Why and How" about the passage.
- Our goal in Interpretation is to place a passage in its appropriate contexts and determine what an author meant by what he said, and what he intended his audience to do when they understood his meaning. A passage has one meaning, usually one application to the original audience and frequently one application to a modern audience. (See below). We've almost finished the process of interpretation when we can answer every aspect of the questions: "Why did the author record
- in this manner?
- What did he expect the original audience to do,
- and why?"
- A brief note on Correlation:
After we've finished the above process for a passage we can then check to see how our interpretation fits into the context of other books written by the author, the rest of the Testament, and the whole of the Bible.
Since the divine Author of Scripture is the same throughout, our presupposition (borne out by study and verification) is that the Scripture is a continuous unit, progressively expressing God's revelation of truth, and thus without contradiction between its parts. The process of building a Systematic Theology is to provide a verification of our interpretation (not a determination) by comparing what God has said about a subject in one place with what He's said about the same subject in another place. Systematic Theology also provides a framework for demonstrating a logical, consistent flow between the arrangements of various subjects. One compares Scripture with Scripture only after one understands the individual Scriptures to be addressing the same subject. To reverse the process is to impose one's prejudices upon the Scripture, rather than letting the Scriptures change us and modify our imperfect systems.
- The point of Observing and Interpreting the Scriptures is Application. God revealed His truth so that we could respond appropriately to it. He revealed information about Himself so that we could respond in worship. He revealed information about us and His plan so we could live wisely and obediently.
- Since some examples and commands in Scripture (such as bring an animal for sacrifice) don't have an immediate application to us today, we must determine the principle or God's intent behind His commands or recording of an example, before we can think about how that principle works its way out in our historical, cultural, theological and personal context.
- God's intent is frequently best expressed in a principle or timeless truth that has relevance and application to both ancient and modern audiences.
Sometimes the principle must be brought across an hermaneutical bridge and modified before we can determine how it applies to us ("Go cry against Nineveh").
Other times the principle is immediately relevant ("Declare what God's done.")
- It is generally true that a passage has one meaning but many applications. But it is more likely that just as there was an intended application by the original author (and God) there is an intended application (by the Holy Spirit) for a specific immediate context today.
- It is helpful to think of the Scriptures as having applications in the areas of what we're supposed to know, feel, value, and do. If we focus on one area to the exclusion of the others, we will eventually fail to follow the purpose for which God gave us the Scriptures.
- If one believes that the Bible is God's authoritative word for how life works and what He wants us to do (which will be used to judge on the last day), then there should serious and verifiable effort expended to integrate the Word into our lives. Thus one would see a growing disciple eagerly devoting themselves to mastering the Word and having the Word master them. To wit,
- regularly exposing oneself to opportunities to learn the Scriptures;
- taking notes to reinforce learning and to serve as a basis for further study;
- examining the Scriptures as did the Bereans to see if what they heard was so;
- keeping a record of their Devotional Times to track what God is doing in their life and understand what He's emphasizing and teaching them as well as to develop a record or testimony of how God intervenes and answers prayer or changes incorrect prayer.
Application of the Obedience Standard:
- Memorizing - a regular program of Scripture Memory is essential if the Spirit of God is to use the Word of God to form in us the Mind of Christ.
We are transformed by the renewing/reprogramming of our minds. If the Word of God is not in the forefront of our thoughts we will continue to succumb to temptation.