Key to Understanding Scripture
Rev. Charles Cooper
is often laced with frustration and discouragement: "How can
Christians read and study the same Bible, yet come away with opposite
conclusions?" Perhaps you too have been asked the very same
question. Every Christian should be able to study and gain a deeper
understanding of the Scriptures concerning salvation, grace, and
the second coming of Christ. These are fundamentals of the faith,
yet many believers struggle with these truths from Scripture for
themselves. Why? Hermeneutics!
two people with similar backgrounds can read the same passage of
the Bible and develop two opposing conclusions is because of two
differing hermeneutics. That's a fancy word for interpretation.
The reason Time Magazine can publish three million copies
of its weekly magazine for people from every corner of the United
States to read and understand is because of a common hermeneutic.
We understand the meaning of words, the way words combine to communicate
meaning, and the subtle variations from normal usage that keep the
language exciting and new.
of understanding what we read and hear is developed through usage.
At an early age, we begin to learn the principles of interpretation
concerning the English language. We learn the meanings of words,
phrases, expressions, and jargon. But principles alone are not enough
to guarantee accurate interpretation. There is also the art of interpretation.
That is, after an interpreter learns the principles-the black and
white-he must then learn to finesse the process. Because human beings
have the ability to communicate in nonverbal ways, mere principles
are not enough to clearly understand all we hear, read and see.
There are subtle ways language, facial expression, sound, and silence
can vary word and contextual meaning. An interpreter must learn
to be aware of more possibilities than just a literal meaning. These
subtle variations require the art of interpretation.
If we learn
both the principles and the art of interpretation through usage
and study, then why do we have such a hard time understanding the
Bible? Again the answer is in our hermeneutic. However, this time
the problem is the lack of a sufficient hermeneutic. For example,
we have a sufficient hermeneutic for reading and understanding the
daily newspaper. There are very few gaps in our understanding of
events happening today; people are up to date on most issues because
the media saturates us with information on anything and everything.
How often do you see someone reading the newspaper with a dictionary
near by? Yet, when it comes to the Bible, one can hardly read a
complete paragraph without having to stop to find out the meaning
of a key word, phrase, or thought. Essentially, it has been 2000
years since the last pages were written in the New Testament. This
causes us to lose the ability to easily understand the teachings
of the Scriptures. Secondly, our English Bible is a translation
of original Greek and Hebrew sources; this further compounds the
problem of understanding the original Author/author.
in order to consistently understand the Bible, a student must have
a wholistic biblical method of interpretation. A wholistic
hermeneutic evaluates all aspects of the Scriptures before any conclusion
is drawn. By wholistic we mean all the components that constitute
the nature of Scripture. Scripture has literary, supernatural, historical,
grammatical, and theological natures. Seldom will a correct understanding
of a biblical passage be secured if any one of these components
is misapplied or absent from the process of interpretation. Many
of the contradictory conclusions reached in Bible study can be traced
back to this one fact: the interpreter did not consider all the
avenues available when trying to discover the Author/author's intended
Ministries maintains a firm commitment to a literal interpretation
of Scripture. In both The Sign and The Rapture Question
Answered this standard is referred to in different ways- customary,
natural and normal sense; face-value hermeneutic; literal; and taking
Scripture exactly for what it says. By such terminology, The Sign
Ministries seeks to prevent the need to allegorize (read
a foreign meaning into the text) or spiritualize (take Scripture
out of its historical context). Scholars often use these methods
because Scripture contradicts their presuppositions.
On the other
end of the spectrum, there are those who hold strongly to the Word
of God but who mishandle matters of interpretation. To an interpreter
unskilled in accurately examining God's Word, the idea of taking
Scripture for what it says is a bit deceptive. On the surface
he or she could think that the Bible is very simple to understand.
One need only read it and the meaning is clear. Hebrews 13:8 says,
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever."
At face-value this verse says that Jesus Christ has not, is not,
and will never change. However, the English Bible (King James Version,
New American Standard Bible, etc.) is a translation from Hebrew
and Greek sources. Translations are the fruit of a group of scholars'
personal interpretations. Thus, the original languages should be
consulted before a person working with an English Bible can definitively
assert the meaning of a passage of Scripture. There are two reasons
for this conclusion. Sometimes an English word translates more than
one Greek word, and often Greek words have more than one nuance
and are difficult to express in English. The scholars frequently
have to choose between the different shades of possible meanings.
The process of discovering the correct meaning of a text is the
heart of the hermeneutical process. Hebrews 13:8 correctly translated
highlights the truth: "Jesus is the Christ, the same yesterday,
today and tomorrow." The point of the text is not that Jesus
Christ has never changed in any shape, form, or fashion. Rather,
the emphasis is that He is the Christ; He was, is, and always will
be. This second translation of the verse has no contradiction with
the fact that Jesus was not always incarnate or that He "increased
in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." The
first translation would contradict these facts about Jesus' life.
There is a world of difference between the two conclusions.
the delicacy and balance involved in using the face-value hermeneutic,
consider "the last trumpet" mentioned in I Corinthians
15:52. We received several phone calls from people who felt that
we were inconsistent with our hermeneutic. Their understanding of
a "face-value hermeneutic" demanded that the meaning of
the phrase "the last trumpet" must be the same event as
"the trumpet of God" in
I Thessalonians 4:16 and the seventh and final trumpet of Revelation
11:15. One caller concluded, in light of these verses, that the
rapture is tied to the last trumpet of Revelation and that the rapture
is to be found in the harvest as described in Revelation 14:14-20.
This person is attempting to use a face-value hermeneutic
by saying that the trumpet of God, the last trumpet, and the seventh
trumpet sequence of Revelation must describe the same event. The
caller's conclusion is based upon the idea of taking Scripture exactly
for what it says. From the caller's questions, I detected a misunderstanding
about the meaning of face-value hermeneutic. Face-value hermeneutic
does not intend that "trumpet" means the exact same thing
at every occurrence in the Bible. Or put another way, literal interpretation
does not mean ignoring the context. The pressing of Scripture to
the point of "wooden literalism" will not solve the problems
the phrase "the last trumpet" (I Cor. 15:52) and the seventh
and final trumpet in Revelation (Rev. 11:15) could designate the
same event. The resurrection of the dead and transformation of the
living accompany the last trumpet of I Corinthians 15. Equally,
immediately following the seventh and final trumpet in Revelation,
the earth is harvested. These similarities would, at face-value,
support the contention that the same event is indicated. However,
the face-value hermeneutic requires more than similar words and
circumstances as a criteria for deciding if two texts are speaking
about the same event. Consider the following facts. The seventh
and final trumpet of Revelation is clearly a part of the wrath of
God. Conversely, the faithful Church is promised total deliverance
and separation from the wrath of God (I Thess. 1:10, 5:9). Also,
the final trumpet of Revelation is blown after the "mystery
of God is finished," which refers to God's eternal plan to
save Israel (Romans 11:25). This is after the Seventieth Week of
Daniel ends, which is indicated by the death of the two witnesses
whose ministry lasts 1,260 days or the second half of the Seventieth
Week of Daniel (Rev. 11:1-10). This is also after the two witnesses
are raised from the dead (Rev. 11:11). The rapture of the church,
on the other hand, is not connected with the end of the Seventieth
Week of Daniel. Scripture specifically connects the rapture of the
church with the beginning of the Day of the Lord. Jesus in the Olivet
Discourse (Matt. 24:29-31), Paul in the clearest rapture passage
of the New Testament (I Thess. 4:13-5:11), and John in the Revelation
of Jesus Christ (Rev. 6:12-17) all point out this significant truth.
The sign that signals the beginning of the Day of the Lord is literally
depicted in the sixth seal. The Day of the Lord begins before the
Seventieth Week of Daniel ends. Therefore, the rapture of the church
cannot be connected to the final trumpet of Revelation. Lastly,
the seventh trumpet of the seven trumpet series of Revelation is
not the last trumpet predicted in Scripture. Isaiah 27:13 declares,
"So it shall be in that day that the great trumpet will be
blown; they will come, who are about to perish in the land of Assyria,
and they who are outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship
the Lord in the holy mount of Jerusalem." The phrase that
day is consistently interpreted to refer to the eschatological
day of the Lord. A closer examination here reveals that this predicted
gathering to the mountain of God will occur after the trumpet judgments
of Revelation. It is after the judgment of God that the Lord is
worshiped from the holy mountain (Zech. 14). It is after the judgment
of God that Israel is saved (Rom. 11:25). It is after the judgment
of God that the new Jerusalem occupies the holy mount (Rev. 21:1-5).
Sufficient to say, the last trumpet of the Revelation series is
not the last prophetic trumpet.
hermeneutic communicates perfectly our philosophy of
biblical interpretation. Once we have discovered the meaning of
the text, we take it for exactly what it says. Rather than trying
to argue the meaning away, we reconcile it to the rest of the Word
of God and sit under its judgment. On the other hand, face-value
hermeneutic may not be the best phrase to describe our method
of biblical interpretation. A wholistic biblical hermeneutic
best describes it. The goal of a wholistic biblical method of interpretation
is "to discover the Author/author's intended meaning."
"to discover" as the verbal description of the activity
of the interpreter, the presuppositional basis of a good hermeneutic
is divulged-the belief that God has communicated His will in the
Scriptures; that all that is necessary to live a godly life can
be learned from the Bible; and that the text has a specific meaning
determined at the time it was written by the Author/author. These
are the beginning truths of Bible study. The Author/author meant
what he wrote and wrote what he meant. The interpreter's job is
to discover the meaning not to determine the meaning. Where the
meaning is not readily apparent in the text, it must be discovered
from what is written.
of biblical authorship by the use of the dual term "Author/author"
helps us to understand that the Bible is more than just a mere newspaper;
both God and man had a part in the writing of Scripture. God superintended
the process to insure that truth was recorded, but man expressed
God's will in language and customs common to the original audience.
To be sure, the human authors of Scripture did not always understand
all the possible ways God would deepen the meaning of a text or
apply a certain passage of Scripture. Nevertheless, the end result
is a supernatural book composed by natural means.
meaning" is that understanding of a text which the Author/author
meant his original reader to know. Modern readers are privileged
to read the mail of Paul to the Philippians. It is important to
realize the primary recipients were directly addressed. We, on the
other hand, are indirectly addressed. Before any attempt is made
to apply the text, an interpreter must concern himself with the
original audience and what the text said to them. Determining application
must not happen until a proper literary, grammatical, historical,
contextual, and theological evaluation has occurred resulting in
a proper interpretation. Then the interpreter is free to attempt
application of the text, be it prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive
passages set forth a detailed pattern to follow concerning actions
and/or thoughts. Descriptive passages simply inform, describe instructions,
give commands to a specific person at the time of writing, or illustrate
a biblical principle. The interpreter must use the descriptive passage
to support a prescriptive passage that teaches the principle in
an explicit manner.