Thanks for hanging in there with me as we continue to whip up a super-savory recipe that will highlight the very best flavors of hermeneutical cuisine.
Last time we focused on the “plain sense” principle of literal interpretation: going after the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence by first considering how it’s most often used in customary, ordinary, or “normal” conversation (or writing).
Today I want to take up what might be called the “narrow-to-wide” principle. Said another way, it’s often best to study the Bible inductively. That means that we seek to interpret the narrower context of a passage before attempting to tackle its wider context. We want to understand the immediate surroundings (the immediate context) before we concern ourselves with the broader context. That’s what we mean by “inductive”: moving from the smallest unit to the largest unit.
If we lean too heavily on study materials – instead of the text – too soon, we run the risk of interpreting a phrase in one part of the Bible as it’s interpreted in another part of the Bible, but not as that word is in fact being used in the passage in view. For example, we don’t want to interpret a word used by Paul the way it’s used by John before we’ve taken into account the verses immediately surrounding the word used by Paul. That might be putting the cart before the horse, because each Biblical writer – like each one of us – used language a little (or a lot) differently.
Think about regional distinctions and dialects. The King’s English and contemporary American slang. Expressions from the countryside and the latest urban jargon. Even when the same language is being used, words can take on extraordinarily different meanings depending on their context.
There’s a little difference between “price tag” and “name tag”, and a world of difference between “Tag, you’re it!” and “hashtag”. And “hashtag” doesn’t mean now what it meant when I was in college. And, just for the record – in case you’re wondering – Charles is a #coolpastor.
And there’s a colossal difference between #coolpastor and CoolWhip. Someone please stop me. I’m getting dangerous.
When we understand a passage within its immediate context, then we can move to its larger context. The narrow must then be related to the rest of Scripture, as well as to the historical, social, and cultural settings of the passage. And always remember this: no part of Scripture should be interpreted in such a way that it contradicts the teaching of the whole of Scripture.
“Scripture interprets Scripture.” We might call that Hermeneutics 101.
The whole of Scripture can be understood by interpreting it part by part. No person can digest the whole of the Bible at once. But no part of the Bible is isolated from the whole (or isolated from its historical and cultural context). So in an amazing dependence upon the Holy Spirit, we interpret God’s Word from part to whole, and from whole to part.
We want both the microscopic perspective and the telescopic perspective. Both ingredients are essential. So we move from the immediate context of a passage to the broader section of Scripture where it’s found, to the whole chapter, to the whole book, to the cross references, to the corpus of books by the same writer, to the particular Testament, to the whole Bible. And then we move back.
All the pseudo-Christian cults – without exception – present portions of the Bible OUT OF CONTEXT. That’s how poisonous wrong interpretation can be, and where it can land us. Danger. Danger. Danger. Don’t get caught in that messed-up mixer – it will beat the life right out of you!
By God’s grace and for His glory, you and I will enjoy the richest of fare as we feed on the living Word of the living God. Hungry yet?