(This is the fifth article in a series addressing various enemies of sound interpretation. You can find the previous four articles here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4)
So far in this series, we’ve addressed three enemies of sound biblical interpretation – using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool, using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations, and isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible. Now, let’s consider an enemy of sound interpretation to which the vast majority of us are susceptible: following a particular interpreter rather than the Bible.
There are some well-known pastor/theologians that many of us at Providence respect, men like John MacArthur, John Piper, Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, etc. We can add to that list the names of great theologians from history like Augustine, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards. These are godly men who have devoted a lifetime to the study of the Bible and we are wise to consult their writings and teaching when considering a passage of Scripture. I personally believe that it is foolish to arrive at a final interpretation of a passage of Scripture without seeking the counsel of seasoned interpreters in the form of commentaries, articles, and other resources.
When we study God’s Word, we should start with the Word. We should do all the hard work of pulling the passage apart and formulating a preliminary interpretation. Then we should consult the thoughts of other interpreters to see if their work has turned up anything we missed. If I consult four or five commentators on a given passage and none of them interpreted the passage the way I did, what are the odds that they are all wrong and I’m right? At the very least, I need to go back and do more digging in the Bible, looking for where I might have gone wrong. Good commentaries have saved me from wrong conclusions many times.
So godly commentators are essential partners as we study the Bible. However, we should be careful not to follow any one commentator/pastor/theologian so closely that his interpretation on any given text is the final word for us. There is no one on the planet who is an infallible interpreter of Scripture. We all make mistakes. We all have certain biases that find their way into our thought processes.
For that reason, I should never rule out a certain interpretation simply because my favorite theologian doesn’t concur with it. If I am willing to follow without deviation all the interpretations of a particular man, not only am I going to be prone to holding mistaken positions, but I may be guilty of making that man my final authority rather than holding the Word as my final authority.
I had a professor (with whom I disagreed on occasion!) who once quipped, “There are a lot of people out there who refuse to think a thought unless it has been authorized by D. A. Carson.” His point was that we should follow the Bible wherever it goes, not any one interpreter wherever he goes. It’s not sinful to disagree with D. A. Carson or John MacArthur or whoever.
If I find myself discounting an interpretation for the simple reason that Tim Keller disagrees, I’m in dangerous territory. Likewise, if I approach a passage thinking, "whatever John Piper thinks about this is good enough for me," I must recognize that I have just stepped over the line between following a man and following the Bible. (Now, if all the interpreters I respect disagree with a given interpretation, that should give me pause. Again, what are the odds that I’m right and all of these more seasoned and learned students of the Bible are wrong?)
On Wednesday night, we watched a video of a conversation of bright, godly pastors/scholars regarding the different millennial positions. I was tremendously encouraged to hear one of these men admit that he holds a different position on the millennium than his favorite historical theologian. For him, the Bible is the final authority, even though this historical theologian was a huge influence in his life.
We too must strive to keep things in balance. We must value and consider the thoughts and counsel of wise interpreters of the Bible without following them blindly. Let’s be thankful for the insights of Bible interpreters who faithfully and skillfully handle the Word, while maintaining the Word itself as our final authority. This balance is essential to sound biblical interpretation.