By Rev. Charles Cooper
The question 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!
The reason 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.
Our method 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.
Therefore, 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 meaning.
The Sign 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.
To illustrate 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 of interpretation.
At face-value 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.
Face-value 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.”
By using “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.
The representation 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.
“Intended 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.