(This is the fourth article in a series. You can find the previous three articles here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3)
Thus far in this series we have tackled a couple of enemies of sound interpretation – (1) using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool and (2) using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations. Today, I’d like to discuss a third enemy – isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible.
You’ve heard it a million times: context is king. Most of us are aware of the near context when studying the Bible. We know that we are supposed to consider a text in light of the book around it. We’ve done this habitually as we’ve studied Matthew together on Sunday mornings for the last several years.
But some folks allow their consideration of the context to end at the borders of a particular biblical book. In other words, when interpreting Ephesians, they are very careful to make sure that their interpretation fits with the rest of Ephesians. When interpreting Acts, they make sure that their interpretation makes sense in light of the rest of Acts. Yet they do not consider whether or not their interpretation fits with the rest of Scripture.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve gotten myself into trouble by making this mistake…well, I’d have a whole lot of nickels! I would study a single canonical book, making sure that my interpretations and insights were faithful to that book, but then very comfortably and confidently made definitive statements about different areas of theology, unaware that those definitive statements contradicted passages in other parts of the Bible.
For example, while studying Luke as a kid, I came across Luke 11:23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. I began to immediately draw a line in the sand between me and everyone else in my world. Not longer after that, I was reading Mark and found Mark 9:40: For the one who is not against us is for us. I knew that there are no contradictions in the Bible, so my definitive statement needed to take both passages into account. I needed to be more careful. I should have learned my lesson right there, but I continued to make the same mistake for years.
Because we’re studying eschatology on Wednesday nights, I have eschatology on the brain most of the time these days. So here’s an eschatological example. Based upon 2 Samuel 7 (cf Psa 132), I believed confidently that God’s promise to David to seat one of his sons on his throne would not be fulfilled until Jesus was literally sitting on the throne in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom. “God made a promise…it hasn’t been fulfilled yet…so it has to be fulfilled some time in the future…simple.” But then while reading Acts I happened upon Peter’s words in Acts 2:30-31, where he says of David, “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ…” The apostle Peter taught that 2 Samuel 7 was fulfilled at the resurrection. Cross-references confirmed this, showing that Jesus reigns now from heaven (Eph 1:18ff).
After making this kind of mistake a jillion times, I decided to get serious about being careful. I found a number of tools that could help me not to isolate a text, but to consider other passages that deal with the same topic or doctrine so that my insights were informed not by a single passage but hopefully by the whole counsel of God.
One of these tools is the cross-reference column that can be found in most Bibles. You know, the tiny Scripture references in that center column on every page of your Bible? (Some Bibles have them along the bottom of the page. Others along the left or right margins.) Those are cross-references leading you to other parts of the Bible that pertain to the same phrase or idea noted in the text. These can be very helpful. However, due to limited space these cross-references are far from exhaustive.
Other more substantial tools include exhaustive concordances. These things are like relics now because there are online tools and software that will do the job of a concordance with a single mouse click. They allow you to search for every occurrence of a particular word in the whole Bible. Very helpful.
But since the Bible can use a number of different words for a particular concept, other tools can be even more helpful, like The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a voluminous collection of cross-references based not just upon particular words, but upon ideas.
But there is one tool for which there is simply no substitute. It enables a student of the Word to make connections between multiple passages, connections that a concordance or cross-reference simply cannot make. It is the single most reliable tool to make sure that one does not isolate a passage from the rest of Scripture. It can’t be bought or borrowed. It is your own human brain filled with a broad knowledge of the Scriptures via years of repetitive reading of the Bible.
The absolute best way to become a better interpreter of the Scriptures is to read the Bible, read the Bible, read the Bible. The longer one studies and reads the Bible, the less he or she will find it necessary to rely on printed or electronic tools. I know there are a number of brothers and sisters at Providence who are this way. Pastor Rick and Pastor Ken, for example, are walking concordances, walking cross-references. They can rattle off numerous passages that speak to any given subject or doctrine, not because they memorized Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance or the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, but because they have spent years repetitively reading the Bible.
You might wonder, “what do I do in the meantime while I’m reading and re-reading the Bible? Am I doomed to make contextual mistakes until then?” You can and should use the tools I mentioned above. But also, I would recommend getting a couple of good commentaries for whatever book you are studying. Commentaries written by solid, conservative evangelicals will go a long way toward helping you to identify pertinent cross-references that many reference tools will miss.
So use those tools…but read the Bible over and over.