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Dr. J. Rodman Williams
THEOLOGY
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THEOLOGY

Scripture: God's Written Word -- Chapter 7

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
Theology

Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 


Chapter Seven

Understanding Scripture


Let us conclude with a consideration of how we are better to understand Scripture. All that has been said thus far is of little avail if comprehension of Scripture is lacking or limited. Accordingly, we shall now set forth a number of factors that contribute to better understanding.

A. Knowledge of God

Since Scripture is God’s written word, we must know the Author if we are to know His word. One may gain some knowledge of the Bible by reading it as an historical and literary document, but for genuine comprehension there is the necessity of being attuned to His voice and message. The Bible is history—His story—the story of God in His relation to the world and man and can only be understood from that perspective. The Bible is a literary document. It may be read as great literature, but the literary form in every instance is subordinate to the message God speaks through it. It is only as we know the God of the Bible that we can truly hear His word.

This further means—and let us put it bluntly—that we need to be "born anew" (John 3:3) for this to happen. Jesus in talking with Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, about this matter said to him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand this?" (John 3:10). As a teacher of Israel Nicodemus presumed to know the Old Testament Scriptures thoroughly, but he did not understand about spiritual rebirth; and not having experienced that rebirth he was lacking in true understanding. One must be "born anew" or "born of God" (John 1:13) to understand the things of God. Those "born of God" through Jesus Christ, accordingly, are children of God and can hear the Father’s voice.

But this also calls for living close to God. One who spends much time communicating with God in prayer, one who daily seeks God’s cleansing and forgiveness, and one who endeavors to walk in humble and loving obedience—such a person by becoming more like God is increasingly able to understand God in His written word.

There can be no substitute for the knowledge of God in apprehending the truth of the Bible.

B. The Whole of Scripture

We need, next, to gain an increasing comprehension of the totality of Scripture to understand its meaning. Since "all Scripture" is "God-breathed," it is important to gain as comprehensive an understanding as possible to apprehend the full truth of God. It is significant that Paul, just before writing to Timothy about this total inspiration of Scripture, speaks of how "from childhood you have known the sacred writings" (II Timothy 3:15, NASB), hence not just a part of them but all of them. Knowledge of the totality of Scripture is essential to understanding both the whole and the part.

Since the Bible is a panorama of God’s work from the initial creation to the final consummation, the reader must be aware of the total picture as he reads any one portion of it. The question often will be: How does this passage fit in with God’s overall purpose and plan? For example, the New Testament itself is the New Covenant (Covenant = Testament), and Jesus speaks about "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20). How does this relate to the Old Testament, i.e., the Old Covenant? Only by an understanding of both is God’s truth adequately discerned.

An increasing knowledge of the whole of Scripture makes for balanced understanding. If one spends most of his time reading only a certain portion, for example, the Gospels, he will be getting only a limited understanding. The Gospels without the Epistles to interpret them are incomplete, the Epistles without the Gospels lack substance: both without the Old Testament are incomprehensible. Frequently people get off on tangents because they regularly read only those parts of Scripture that interest or please them. Paul speaks of how he had declared to the elders at Ephesus "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:28) so that they might better lead the congregation. It is the "whole counsel" in the totality of Scripture that brings about mature and balanced understanding.

One of the surest principles of biblical understanding is that Scripture interprets Scripture.76 If some passage read is not clear in itself, often the most helpful procedure is to turn to other similar passages that may cast light on the one being considered. Such procedure obviously calls for a wide knowledge of Scripture, for the more comprehensive is one’s knowledge the more able he will be to apply it to a given passage.

We cannot urge too strongly the importance of studying the whole of God’s written word. This calls for consistent day by day reading of selected portions of the Bible and pondering each Scripture verse carefully. For many persons it is valuable to read through the Bible each year, so that as time goes on there is a growing sense of being immersed in the totality of God’s word. In so doing it is important to read from the New Testament regularly, since Christians are primarily people of the New Covenant. A good reading guide will often suggest daily readings from both Testaments and possibly a plan for completing the whole Bible in a year.

It is helpful to read the Bible in various translations. Any knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is of course valuable, since they are the original languages. Most readers will need to make use of biblical translations. The King James Version of A.D. 161177 continues to be useful; however, there is need for supplementation by more recent translations, for example, the Revised Standard Version (RSV),78 New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the New International Version (NIV). The Living Bible79 is a good paraphrase that often provides additional insights. It is important to make use of more than one translation so as to gain as much perception as possible of the original text of Scripture.

The more we know the whole of God’s written word, the better equipped we will be for all of life. To refer to Paul’s words once again about "all Scripture" being "God-breathed," it is to be recalled that he adds: "and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." The whole of Scripture, as read and understood, makes for the complete equipment that the Christian needs.

C. Diversity in Scripture

In order to understand Scripture properly it is important to recognize its rich variety. God’s written word is by no means a monolithic statement of some kind but through human instruments comes in many and diverse ways. Scripture contains history and prophecy, poetry and wise sayings, parable and allegory—to mention some of the variety—and through all such means God declares His word and truth. Since this is the case, if the reader is to understand what the Scripture is saying he must read with appreciation of this wide diversity.

Further, there is the related matter of literal and figurative expressions in the Bible. For example, in Isaiah 55 there is the declaration by God through the prophet that "as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (verse 9). There is also the statement that "the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (verse 12). The first declaration is obviously to be understood quite literally: God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours. The latter has to be understood figuratively: mountains and hills do not literally sing nor do trees clap their hands. Both are true statements (the figurative is not less factual than the literal), but must be understood in terms of the kind of language used, or there will be confusion and misunderstanding. It is by no means always easy to know what is literal and what is figurative in a given passage or book. But there must be the recognition of such differences in many places if one is to arrive at right understanding.

There is also much diversity in the historical and cultural background of the human writers of Scripture. The more that can be learned about such matters as historical setting, customs of the time, and the writer’s own situation, the better prepared one is to appreciate what the Scripture contains. To be sure, God’s word is by no means simply a product of history and culture—it infinitely transcends all things human; however, since God’s word is spoken in and through the total human context, it may be better heard when something of that background and context is known. A good study Bible with dictionary, commentary, maps, and other relevant information can often prove quite helpful.

Recognition of the rich diversity in Scripture can be another step ahead in understanding God's written word.

D. Illumination of the Holy Spirit

For the true and proper understanding of Scripture the illumination of the Holy Spirit is essential. Since the Scriptures—all of them—are "God-breathed," "God-Spirited,"80 they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Each passage and word is an emanation of the divine breath, the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the same Holy Spirit must illuminate the reader if he is to have genuine understanding.

This means, first of all, that a person needs to be spiritually perceptive. Paul writes (as we earlier noted): "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God" (I Corinthians 2:12 NASB). The "things freely given" of which Paul speaks refers to his teaching by the Spirit (2:13). Then Paul adds: "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised [or ‘discerned’]" (2:14 NASB). The natural man, "the man without the Spirit81" (NIV), cannot possibly—no matter how excellent a student of Scripture he may be—discern "the things of the Spirit." Unless one is "born of the Spirit,"82 there can be no illumination by the Spirit, hence utterly no apprehension of the truths of God.

We cannot emphasize this point too strongly. The most accurate factual knowledge attained through language study, detailed analysis, repeated reading, and so on, can give information, to be sure, but unless the person himself is changed, he cannot begin to understand. There can be no illumination of the Spirit to a mind and heart still darkened by sin. Paul writes elsewhere: "Put off your old nature...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds" (Ephesians 4:22-23). Unless such renewal has occurred, the study of Scripture cannot lead to spiritual understanding.

Second, it is important to add that the more a person has matured spiritually—the Holy Spirit doing an increasing work of sanctification—the more he will be able to apprehend Scriptural truth. As Paul begins to discuss some deeply spiritual matters, he says to the Corinthians that "among the mature we do impart wisdom" (I Corinthians 2:6).83 However, says Paul later to the Corinthians, "I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but a men of the flesh [‘carnal’ –KJV], as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food" (I Corinthians 3:1-2). If persons are still "babes in Christ," there is no way to appropriate the deeper things of God as set forth in His written word. But to the mature, the Holy Spirit will increasingly illuminate the truths of God.

Our primary concern, therefore, in seeking to understand Scripture is to be the kind of person who can receive this spiritual illumination. A Christian who is still largely a "man of the flesh" (a "carnal" Christian) can only go so far. Though such a one is no longer a "natural man," and therefore has some spiritual perception, he cannot really get into "solid food," the meatier stuff of Scripture. Progress in the word can only occur through spiritual maturation.

Consequently, if we are seeking day by day to grow in holiness, and thereby maturing, we can approach God’s written word with a mind and heart that is far more ready. We will still need to pray for God’s cleansing of our minds and hearts, since there are invariably some blocks in the way. But when such a prayer has been very specifically and concretely offered, we are then ready to pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate the words to be read. A brief prayer might simply be: "Come, Holy Spirit, Inspirer of these words, and illuminate my mind and spirit so that I may truly understand."

It is amazing what God will reveal in His word to those who are prepared to receive. Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit comes, "He will teach you all things" (John 14:26). Even so the Holy Spirit through God’s word will lead into all truth.84

E. The Help of Other Christians

Finally, in order to understand Scripture adequately we need the help that can come from other Christians. From the earliest days of the church, believers were strengthened in their faith by the teaching of fellow Christians. The first thing said about the believers on the day of Pentecost was that "they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching" (Acts 2:42). To be sure, these believers had received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, but they needed the teaching of the apostles to give them fuller understanding.

One of the ministries that Christ has given to certain persons in the church is the ministry of teaching: "his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11). The teachers, along with other gifted ministries, function "for the equipment of the saints...until we all attain to the unity of the faith...so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (verses 12-14). We do have the essential teaching of the apostles in the Scriptures, but we need others who, building on that teaching, give further help in understanding. Without such teaching, people often get carried away into grievous error.

Faithful attendance at church to receive anointed preaching and teaching, study of God’s word together in Sunday School and home fellowships, the reading of good Bible commentaries: these are just some of the ways whereby we may be helped in the study of God’s written word. Though the Holy Spirit often does illuminate the word for a believer in his own reading and prayer, the Spirit may—and often does—use the teaching of others to provide insight and understanding.

A brief word of admonition: we must guard against false teachers. It is quite significant that shortly after Paul says to Timothy that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful [or ‘profitable’] for teaching" (II Timothy 3:16), he adds: "The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (4:3-4). Unfortunately, it is the case today that many Christians are turning aside from sound teaching and listening to whatever suits their fancy85 or gives them a sense of being the only true believers.86 We must guard against any and every tendency to listen to such seductive teaching.

But now having spoken this warning, it remains a fact that all of us need the help of others in understanding God’s holy word. The Holy Spirit is not simply given to the individual so that he may understand, but the Spirit is also given to the community of Christians and to certain persons in it who are especially anointed as teachers. Hence we need one another. God may illuminate a passage of Scripture through another brother or sister as we meet together, or He may speak through one who is gifted to be a teacher. In whatever way truth comes through others we may indeed be grateful.

---------------

We close on a note of thanksgiving that God has seen fit to give us His word in writing. Surely Jesus Christ will always have primacy, for He is the Word who became flesh; but the beauty of the words of Scripture is that they are a continuing witness to Him.87 Moreover, until Christ shall return, the Scriptures are God’s tangible utterances that through the Holy Spirit will lead us in the way everlasting.

Thanks be unto God for His holy word!

Footnotes

76The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it thus: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly" (Chap. I. Sect. IX).

77The King James translation of 1611 is also known as "the Authorized Version," since it was authorized by England's ruling monarch at that time, and replaced other preceding translations. "Authorized" should not be understood to mean the approved version for our day.

78Or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

79The Living Bible is available in a special edition as The Book.

80 Recall fn. 23.

81The word is psuchikos: i.e., natural man, not yet touched by the Spirit of God.

82Recall our prior discussion of this rebirth.

83Referring to the "secret and hidden wisdom of God…decreed before the ages for our glorification" (I Cor. 2:7).

84For a much fuller discussion the Holy Spirit as "Guide into Truth," see Renewal Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 237-43.

85 Or their ego, e.g., the Gospel as the way to success and prosperity.

86Many religious sects make an exclusive claim on truth.

87We quote again, finally, the words of Jesus Himself about the Scriptures: "It is they that bear witness to me" (John 5:39).


Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

 

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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