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One Interpretation, Many Applications April 23, 2016

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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One of the criticisms of the Bible is that everyone interprets it differently. This a legitimate concern. There are many people that come to different ideas on what parts of the Bible are actually teaching. Some people base their interpretations based on only one or two verses completely overlooking the literary context these verses came from. Picking out isolated verses to prove a point is called “proof-texting”. The problem with proof-texting is that it starts with the individual (their views, beliefs, experiences, etc.) and imposes those ideas onto the text. If you take verses out of their context you can find justification for almost anything you want. People have used the Bible to condone slavery, racism, the Crusades, polygamy, homosexuality, and numerous cults. The teachings on baptisms for the dead and the high status of the Pope both come from Biblical passages. There have been many things that people have wrongly believed simply because they had a misunderstanding of what the Bible actually taught.

The Church today is fractured and schizophrenic in its beliefs. We have hundreds of denominations in the US today. Most of these came about because of differences of opinions on doctrine and practice. We have some churches that put a big emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit, while others see the gifts of miracles and prophecy finished with the completion of the Bible. Some people believe it is a sin to read any other translation other than the KJV. Some churches don’t allow women teachers. Some believe if you are not a Calvinist you are not a Christian. Some of these differences are a matter of tradition, but for the most part we simply disagree on what the Bible teaches.

Some people think the Bible is like an artistic painting or piece of modern art, that you look at and interpret based on how you feel. This is exemplified in the question a lot Bible study groups ask: “What does this passage mean to you?”This version of Bible study a lot of times ends up as just a pooling of ignorance. People say whatever comes to their mind, whether or not it is relevant or even accurate. Studying the Bible takes time and effort. Most people tend to give up too quickly. They think that a cursory reading of the text is sufficient.

In case you were wondering, studying and understanding the Bible is difficult and takes time. It was written in an ancient language (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). It was written thousands of years in the past in a culture that we are unfamiliar with. It was originally written for a specific audience, and because of this there were things the authors didn’t say because they didn’t have to. Their audience was already familiar with the culture and language. It is our job as faithful readers to attempt to understand what the author’s of the Bible were trying to say to their original audience. Only after we understand what it meant to those people can we make application to our lives today.

People say that since there are so many different views on what the Bible says, we can’t know what the Bible actually teaches. If we have such a diverse range of interpretations, even in the Church and among scholars, how can we know which one is correct? This is the whole reason why we have exegesis and hermeneutics. Even though it is difficult to get at what the author’s original intent was, this should be our goal.

The people who wrote the Bible, had a specific purpose for writing what they did. They had a distinct and deliberate message they were trying to convey to their audience. This is what we should be trying to uncover. This becomes even more important when we realize that these people were inspired by God.The Holy Spirit led these writers to convey a message. This wasn’t some symbolic or hidden message He was trying to convey. God had a specific message He wanted the people to understand and He gave it in a way that the people could comprehend. The more we can put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the audience to which the Bible was originally written, the better we will be able to interpret the message to them. Once we understand what God was trying to say to them, we can make application to our modern context.

No one is perfect in their interpretation. Because of our distance from the original readers, there will inevitably be things we will not be 100% sure about. But, there are also things that the Bible is so clear on that we should be unified in our theology. The way I think about it is that there are two categories of the things the Bible teaches. There are essentials and non-essentials. The essentials include things like the basic Gospel message (Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected), Jesus’ divinity, the trinity, the idea that Christ is coming again, etc. The non-essentials are things like style of worship, speaking in tongues, tattoos, eating pork, issues surrounding the second-coming/end times, etc. Basically, the things that you must believe in order to be saved are essentials, and those things not affecting salvation are non-essentials.

Past interpretations

We are not the first generation to read the Bible. Many people in different cultures and contexts had to make sense of what the Bible was saying for them. This is what is so great about the Bible. Its message transcends time and culture. Throughout history people have had to do the same thing we do today – read the Bible, attempt to understand its original meaning and then apply it to their lives.

I do want to make mention of some alternate interpretive methods, particularly the Jewish interpretation. One of their methods is known as PaRDeS. It is basically an acronym for Pashat, Remez, Drash and Sod. The four levels of interpretation. The Pashat is the “simple” interpretation which is essentially what I have been referring to, getting at the meaning of the author. The other three are increasingly deeper levels of meaning that attempt to find hidden meanings that can be found in the patterns of words and letters of texts. These interpretations range from symbolic (reading an idea like circumcision into a text that doesn’t explicitly talk about it but may have verbal parallels to other passages that do mention circumcision) to more hidden interpretations. These hidden interpretations often would rely on numbers. By assigning numerical values to numbers and words they would make comparisons to other words or phrases with the same numerical value. In this way, they would connect passages together that otherwise wouldn’t be connected. One thing they did believe though was that the simple meaning was the baseline, and so none of the other levels could contradict it.

There are some dangers in these types of interpretive methods. I think a lot of people see the Bible as this mysterious book with all kinds of hidden meanings that once uncovered will unlock some secret message in the text. I’ve noticed this a lot when it comes to word studies. Because most people are unfamiliar with Greek and Hebrew, they think that they can uncover vast meanings hidden in the definitions of certain words. This is not the purpose of word studies. While it is true you can get a more nuanced understanding of a passage by looking both at the grammar and the Greek or Hebrew words used, this is different than trying to get a new meaning from a text by searching through a list of definitions for a word. The words themselves only have meaning because of the sentence they are in. A word doesn’t import all its different definitions to each context it is used in. It is constrained to its chosen usage. In the same way sentences or verses are limited to the context of the paragraph to which they are in.

Whether trying to get at a deeper meaning through improper use of word studies or through some sort of numerological code, we end up missing the message of the author. And this is what is important. Whatever other messages we “find” in the text, if we overlook the message of the author they are worthless. In fact, by looking for these other things instead of what the author is trying to tell us, we hinder ourselves from understanding the original message.

Application

I guess what bothers me in all this is that we aren’t satisfied with the simplicity of the Bible. Why do we think that a deeper meaning is somehow more spiritual than the plain meaning of the author? Earlier I mentioned the difficulties in the interpretive process due to time, context and language, but there are also things that are clear. A lot of the message of the Bible translates easily through all cultures and times. The ideas of love, justice, mercy, righteousness, holiness, and humility don’t need much interpretation to understand them properly. We get so caught up in the intricacies of interpretive method, that we forget to actually do what it says. The Bible isn’t just a book of a bunch of theological ideas, it is handbook for how to live. We follow it best, not when we understand it fully, but when we live out the parts we do understand.

Eating Shellfish and Interpretative Methodologies June 24, 2014

Posted by TJ Friend in Uncategorized.
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Does the Bible prohibit eating shellfish? Before I answer this question I want you to take a second to think about how you would answer it. If you are familiar with the Bible, what verses would you site either for or against it? What arguments would you use to support your position?

I want to use this question as an example of different ways people come to the Bible. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people (whether knowingly or not) who misuse the Bible. Verses are taken out of context and even twisted to fit what people want the Bible to say. I chose this issue because it is relatively minor. We aren’t having huge debates over whether or not it is a sin to eat shellfish. Churches aren’t splitting because of it, nor are there massive amounts of books being written on this subject. Most of all though, this issue is something we can actually discuss without getting so emotional that the truth is drowned out.

How you answer this question says a lot about your view of the Bible and your approach to interpreting it. I want to go over a few different arguments people use when answering questions about what the Bible says on a specific issue. These arguments will be general enough to apply to different questions, but I am using the specific issue of eating shellfish as an example. My hope is that when you hear these arguments, applying to shellfish or any other issue, you will recognize the problem with them and be able to answer them Biblically.

Before we get into the arguments, let’s take a look at the two passages that people use to argue against eating shellfish.

 “‘Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you.”

Lev. 11:9-12 

“Of all the creatures living in the water, you may eat any that has fins and scales. But anything that does not have fins and scales you may not eat; for you it is unclean.”

Deut. 14:9-10 

Whatever your view on this issue is, it must take these passages into account if you want to remain faithful to the authority of Scripture.

 

1. The Argument from Silence

There are some people that will say that if a specific word does not appear in Scripture then the Bible has nothing to say about it. In the case of eating shellfish, one could argue that since the word “shellfish” never appears in the Bible then the Bible has nothing to say about it. In fact the passages above are the closest references to the word “shellfish” in the Bible. You could make this sound even more dramatic by saying that Jesus himself never talked about shellfish, neither did Paul or any of the other New Testament writers. Of course this is false. We will get to Jesus’ thoughts on this issue later. But, just because the specific wording isn’t used doesn’t mean that the Bible is silent on the issue. If you read the two passages above, they clearly define our modern day understanding of shellfish. If a passage describes or even defines a specific idea isn’t that just as good as the word itself? The wording could have been more specific, listing out every animal that has fins and scales, and then listing out every animal that doesn’t have fins and scales, but this is a much more efficient way to say the exact same thing. By giving a general principle for people to follow there is less confusion on what is acceptable or not.

We can’t say that because a word is not found in the Bible, that the Bible has nothing to say about it. There are many things that the Bible doesn’t specifically address by exact word, but that doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about them. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. There are many issues today that the Biblical writers were not aware of. The great thing about the Bible is that because it was inspired by God, the message is applicable across time. We can apply the same principles today to our current situations that the original readers/hearers would have applied to their situations.

 

2. The Argument of Irrelevance

This argument is mostly applied to Old Testament law specifically Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There are a lot of laws in these two books that we currently don’t follow today. I would encourage you to read these two books for yourself (especially Leviticus) to see what they actually say. People will say that since some of these laws are not for us today, then we should disregard these books as relevant for today. In looking at the question of eating shellfish, someone might claim that this is simply and outdated law and therefore we don’t need to follow it. I have seen people use this law as an example of Christian hypocrisy. (This is part of the reason why I wanted to talk about it.) People will accuse Christians of “picking and choosing” which parts of the Bible to follow and which ones to discard seemingly at random. Some even use this to dismiss the entire Old Testament as irrelevant for us today (now that we have the New Testament), or even worse, disregard the entire Bible.

What saddens me about this argument is its lack of respect for the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Instead of taking the time to study these passages and understand their purpose for being written, we simply discard them. The Bible isn’t a book of human thoughts and ideas, these are the words of God Himself (1 Thes 2:13). For thousands of years people gave their lives to copying and preserving these words so that we could have them today. People like William Tyndale literally died to make sure that we could read the Bible in our own language. Christians throughout history have sacrificed a lot on account of this book. God wanted us to have the Bible for a reason. All of it is important (2 Tim 3:16). Our frivolous handling of the Word of God shows our lack of reverence for it. Even if the message of a passage doesn’t seem relevant for today, we should ask the question why God, in His sovereignty, preserved it for us. We should ask ourselves if there is any message or teaching we can apply to ourselves today. In the case of eating shellfish, even if you believe this passage is irrelevant and doesn’t apply to us today, you should still try to understand why it was recorded in Scripture and if there is another point of application you can make for your life.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the laws in the Old Testament. As with any passage in the Bible, we need to read contextually. A lot of people assume that there are only two ways to understand these laws. Either we should follow all of them or none of them. Critics will say that because we don’t follow all these laws today, that we are just choosing the ones we want to follow based on personal preference or some other random method. If this was accurate, that there are people that choose which laws to follow based on their own desires, then we do have a problem. We need to have some sort of methodology to understand which laws apply today and which one’s don’t.

There are some laws in the Old Testament that we legitimately don’t need follow today. This doesn’t mean that they are irrelevant for us, but that we need to work harder to find application for our lives today. The Israelites, as God’s chosen people, were to be set apart from the nations around them.

You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.

Leviticus 18:3

But I said to you, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations. “You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart.”

Leviticus 20:24-26

These laws were not only for the benefit of the Israelites, but also as a witness to the nations around them. As Moses says:

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?

Deuteronomy 4:5-8

Just because these laws were specifically for the Israelites at that time, does not mean they are all irrelevant. Some of the laws transcended that particular context and are still valid for us today. Obviously the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5) are still important today. There were also things that God judged the other nations for, that God also was calling Israel to obey. If God thought a practice was so bad that he destroyed nations for it, we should also not do it today. Leviticus 18 is a good example of this. This chapter lists a bunch of laws prohibiting different types of sexual relations. We see God prohibiting adultery (18:7), bestiality (18:23), and even a prohibition against child sacrifice (18:21). God judged other nations for these sins. How much more will He judge us when we commit these sins?

“‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

Leviticus 18:24-27

If we take passages like Leviticus 18 and say they are irrelevant, we have to say that these other laws are also irrelevant for us today. If some of these other laws are discarded as unimportant then the Bible also loses its voice on things such as bestiality or brother-sister sexual relations.

When we come to the laws in the Old Testament we need to look at the entire scope of Scripture. Sometimes God will specifically say a law from the Old Testament is no longer valid for us today. (This is the case with all the laws relating to animal sacrifices. Also, the rules regarding circumcision are no longer for us today.) There are laws in the O.T. which are reinforced in the New Testament. When we look at the Ten Commandments we see that Jesus himself took these to a higher level in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Jesus says that whereas the law prohibited actions, people will be judged now for their evil intentions. He gives the example of murder (one of the Ten Commandments) and says that we will be judged (Matt 5:21-22) if we hate our brother. He also talks about adultery and says that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matt 5:27-28).

We will look at what the New Testament has to say about eating shellfish later. The New Testament is actually pretty clear on this issue. If we limit ourselves to only looking at one or two verses from the Old Testament on particular issues we can actually miss the Biblical teaching on them. The entire Bible is inspired by God and if we are serious about following the teachings of the Bible we need to understand canonically (entire bible) what the Bible teaches.

 

3. The Argument of Love

The argument of love says that love is the highest good and so anything that is done in love is inherently good. This is somewhat a Biblical argument in that Scripture talks about love as the fulfillment of the law.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Rom 13:8-10

In the case of eating shellfish, someone might claim that they “love” eating lobster or clams and therefore it must be good to eat them.

As you can see, the main problem with this argument is a misunderstanding of the word “love”. If we are going to live out the virtue of love then we need to do it as God defines it, not how we define it. Claiming to “love” shellfish is really just saying that you really like it. When you are eating lobster or shrimp, you don’t form a deep intimate bond with it. You eat the good parts and throw out the bad parts. This is a selfish type of love in that it is entirely based on one’s own desires for self-gratification.

Unfortunately there when we look at relationships today, we can see a lot of things that are called “love” that are not actually loving (or even abuse). There are people that say they love each other, but will talk about them behind their back. People will lie to each other and say all kinds of mean things to each other, all the while claiming to love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 gives a great description of godly love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

It is patient and kind, and keeps no record of wrongs. Can you really say you love someone if you make fun of them or put them down, even if you are joking? Is it loving to lie to people or ignore them? We need a revolution in relationships today. What we call love is mostly motivated by our own selfish desires and wants and isn’t the type of humble service and self-sacrifice that God desires.

In order to understand Biblical love, we need to understand God’s love. We can’t put our definition of love above God’s, since He is the very embodiment of love. God is love. The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Whatever else we love should be second to our love for God. John 14:15 says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Loving God, means keeping his commandments. We don’t follow God’s commands to earn our righteousness or His love. When we truly love God, the natural outcome will be to follow His commands.

The problem arises when what we enjoy takes the place of loving God. If the Bible teaches that something is a sin and we do it anyway, we are not loving God with our actions. We can’t allow any other love to take the place of our love for God. By not following His commands we are essentially saying that we don’t love God.

 

4. The Argument of Tolerance

Tolerance is one of those concepts that the world highly values that has infiltrated into the Church. A lot of people will claim (both in and out of the Church) that love is the highest value, but practically speaking, tolerance seems to be the highest good today. As I see it, tolerance is the view that people should be allowed to live their lives however they want without being judged by others. If you say anything against what someone is doing it is considered intolerant.

Someone might say they enjoying eating shellfish, so they should be able to eat it. It doesn’t matter what the Bible says about it, and if anyone says it’s wrong then they are being intolerant. The way someone chooses to live in effect trumps both the Bible and truth.

The problem with this is that it starts with the individual as the source of what is right and wrong. If you already believe something is right or wrong, you will read the Bible through that lens and potentially misread the Bible to fit your desires. We cannot be the measure of what is right and wrong. The ultimate authority must be in what God has spoken. He is the one who created us and knows what is best.

The question becomes, is there anything that can be considered wrong? Can we tell someone what they are doing is wrong, or would that be judgmental? I feel like we are losing our voice in society. The argument of tolerance is an argument that, in effect, silences objections. Instead of discussing issues, we end up shutting people down. Whatever your view on an issue, you should have the humility to listen to the other side and be willing to challenge your own position. We are only hurting ourselves when we hinder rational discussion and debate.

I need to make one final point on this argument. There are some people that are legitimately intolerant. They can be so focused on what they believe is true that they put others down, bully them or even verbally or physically attack them. Even if you believe you are right, it is never alright to harm others because they believe something different. We need to be gracious in our speech and respectful of others. There needs to be some sort of middle ground where we can disagree with someone and yet not belittle or insult them in the process. We have some work to do as a society to get to the point where this is the norm, but I am believing for it.

 

Does the Bible prohibit the eating of shellfish?

I have provided a number of arguments that people might use to validate their desire to eat shellfish. Our final authority though should be the Bible as God’s word to us. As we look at the two verses I put at the beginning of this post, we can see a clear prohibition of eating shellfish (even though the word “shellfish” isn’t there). As I mentioned before, we need to take these into account if we want to be faithful to the text. If these were the only two verses about eating shellfish then it might be clear, but there are actually more passages that we need to look at to understand the overall message of the Bible on this issue.

I want to briefly look at two passages from the New Testament that can inform are view on this issue. In Acts there is a passage that talks about a vision God gives to Peter. In this vision God tells Peter to eat food that was “unclean”. In this passage God is changing Peter’s views on what is clean and what is unclean. Ultimately, this is the beginning of the Gentiles being included into the people of God. Right after this, Peter preaches the gospel to Cornelius and both he and his family (all Gentiles) get saved. This passage teaches that foods that were once considered unclean are now clean, and in the same way, people that were once considered unclean are now clean.

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Acts 10:9-15

One final passage I want to look at is from the Gospels. Jesus is teaching the people that the things that defile people are their evil thoughts and actions, not the food they eat. Food goes into the body and them comes out of their body. It is actually the things that come out of people’s hearts that defiles them. Jesus in this passage is affirming the eating of shellfish for today.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Mark 7:14-23

 

Conclusion

There are many issues that we are facing in our society today. We need to have an answer to the questions the world is asking. I have provided a few of the arguments people use to either discount or misread the Bible. If we truly value Scripture we will seek to understand it in its entirety. Even when we come across difficult passages we can’t give up on the Bible, but dive in deeper and seek to understand what they are saying. The Bible may not specifically mention an issue, but that doesn’t mean that the Bible has nothing to say about it. There are always principles we can apply to whatever issue we are going through. As we prayerfully seek God and meditate on His truth, He will guide us and direct us righteously.