Interpreting Difficult Bible Passages (Teachers Part 2)

Dr. Bruce Waltke was one of the lead translators of the New International Version bible. I attended a seminar he hosted back in 1994 on the subject I am dealing with in this article. He asked us to give him any passage of Scripture and he would apply rules of interpretation to that passage. Then he looked at us and said, “I am going to disqualify one verse. I refuse to explain 1 Timothy 2:15”.

Of course, from that point on, we kept begging him to return to that verse. After dealing with about 20 troublesome passages, he finally looked at us and said “There is a reason I don’t want to tackle 1 Timothy 2:15. We don’t know enough to take it on. Every explanation that has been given through the ages falls flat and does not satisfy the most elementary of hermeneutical principles. We may never know what it means. But these principles you learned today will work on every other part of the Bible. Of that I can assure you.”

So, since that day, I have tried to disprove Dr. Waltke’s theory about 1 Timothy 2:15. I have come to find out he is correct. There is no good explanation for it. But the following five principles will work in interpreting difficult or archaic passages of Scripture. These are laid out in the order I perform them.

  1. Use Jesus as Your Arbiter. In Hebrews 1:1 we read, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom also he made the universe.” As we saw last time, it is important to note contrasts in Scripture verses. This verse is laid out in two ideas that contrast with each other:
    1. In the past – that is, in the Old Testament.
    2. But now – that is, since Jesus lived on this earth.

Jesus is the one who gives us the complete revelation of God. When the Old Testament says one thing and the New Testament contradicts that, the life of Jesus and the testimony and teaching of Jesus are the arbiter to determine how to interpret. For instance, the Old Testament says that everyone is to keep the Sabbath day (Saturday) and set it apart as special. But Paul says that every day can be treated alike. And Hebrews tells us that the Sabbath is a picture of the sanctified life in God. How are we to determine which is true? Jesus shows us in his life. In Jesus’ actions, he worked on the Sabbath. He healed on the Sabbath. He traveled on the Sabbath. He did all the things the Law forbade on the Sabbath. Finally, when he was confronted, he told them “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He is claiming that his authority supersedes that of even a commandment.

Colossians 2:16-17 says this:

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

All of the things that Paul mentions in verse 16, he then calls “shadows”. Unfortunately, this is the problem with interpreting portions of the Old Testament. They are not even the fullest revelation of God. They are shadows of what is to come. And what was coming is Jesus Himself. There is no meaning to the ceremonies of the Law if Jesus did not become a man. They are just empty ceremonies without him. But his life fulfilled all of these things. Only those aspects of the Law that Jesus gives meaning to should be kept. For instance, we are told in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus declares all foods clean. This was a radical departure from the Old Testament. There are people today who cling to Old Testament teachings to base their Christian lives upon. This is foolish and shows poor hermeneutics.

At the same time, Jesus does help us keep certain truths in tension. The idea that God is gracious and compassionate, but still is the Judge of the Universe seem to present conflicting ideas. But Jesus held onto both ideas and only in his life do we see how that tension plays out in a godly way. If you study Jesus and make Him the focus of theology, then all difficult bible passages take on a clearer perspective.

  1. Determining Cultural Context. Sometimes a Bible passage is difficult for a good reason. Within that passage, there are references to things that are culturally discerned and rooted. A good example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-6. This is the part about head coverings for women. If you don’t understand some elements about Corinthian culture, you can make the mistake of pulling something out of one culture and making it mean something completely different in another place. In Corinth, the only women who didn’t wear a shawl were temple prostitutes. In addition, in secular Greek culture, when a woman married, she was not really allowed to leave her home or the grounds of her estate. But the church began to free women up from this homebound rule. With this newfound freedom, women were going to church and leaving home quite happily. But some of them took this freedom one step too far. Many of them reasoned that since the Gospel freed them up from the strictures about staying home, they could uncover their heads as well. This probably came from the defiant attitude that was common in Corinth in the ancient world. Therefore, these women could easily be mistaken for temple prostitutes. Paul’s solution was easy. Wear a head covering and don’t disgrace your husband and family by parading around like a hooker. Once you know that background, this becomes an easier passage to wrestle with. More about this passage in a later rule. Bible Dictionaries, commentaries and other books of this sort will help you find the background material you need. A wonderful resource is William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible. Though he himself struggled with his faith, he did an admirable job of researching the archeological background of so much of Scripture. When determining the cultural context, keep in mind the following:
    1. The time period they lived in
    2. The cultures dominant at that time
    3. What the original readers of this Scripture would have heard when it was read.
  2. Decide on the Universal Truth. There are some bible interpreters who completely miss this stage on purpose. They believe that everything the Bible says should be taken at its face value and should not be interpreted any further. They use this approach to justify ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, slavery, abuse of children, archaic practices in worship services (such as snake handling, head coverings and silence of women). When you are studying a passage, it is good to prepare a mental summary of the inductive observations. For instance, you may study the passage about head coverings and conclude that Paul is teaching that wives need to honor their husbands by wearing a head covering when they’re in public. Is that then the final truth? Hardly; although there are Mennonite groups that believe it is. A good teacher will take the Inductive Truth and determine the Universal Truth. You do this by stripping away any cultural or time period anachronisms and then decide how this truth can apply to all peoples at all times. In our day, head coverings are mostly meaningless. But there are many other things which are meaningful. A woman should not flirt with other men. A man should not kiss other women on the lips. These are things in our culture which would be unacceptable for a married person to do in public. This then would be the final Universal Truth of that passage: “don’t do anything which would dishonor your spouse in public.” If you are working through difficult passages, always keep the Universal Truth forefront in your approach.
  3. Just as it is important to determine what is being said in a difficult passage, it is just as important once you’ve determined that to know what to do with it. There are many teachers who take an academic approach to the Bible. They want to find all the nuances and vagaries of the text without realizing the main purpose of our teaching is to change lives. And you change lives by suggesting ways the listeners can live out what they’re hearing. This is true even of difficult passages. It is often the point where the most revelation comes to you as a teacher when you begin to ask “How can someone live out this truth?” In our example above, how does one live out the truth about the head coverings? If the Universal Truth is that we ought to honor our spouses in public, it is essential that we ask ourselves “what ways might we dishonor our spouses?” As I thought about this a while ago, it occurred to me I was doing something that did not honor my wife. That passage, through its thorough study, led me to change a habit I had developed. The best Bible teachers always have the application in mind. If you can’t apply a Scripture, you haven’t done enough work on it yet.
  4. Theology and Historical Doctrine. The church has been studying the Bible for 2000 years. Though we haven’t always got it right, there are insights and conclusions that people have drawn which will help in interpreting the Bible. I saved this one for last, because we need to do the other work first before resorting to tradition and traditional explanations. I know my Reformed, Orthodox and Episcopal friends will disagree with putting this rule so far down on the list, but I believe this is where it belongs. I think the Creeds of the Churches—and there are many of them—do give us things to reflect upon that help us interpret difficult Scriptures.

 

If, after reading this list, you feel like despairing of ever understanding what the Bible says, keep a couple of things in mind. First, Paul makes it clear that not everyone should ascribe to be a teacher. Teachers will be held to a higher standard than the average person in Church. These rules of hermeneutics show that this is hard work and is supposed to be so. Second, would you trust an engineer, a doctor, an airline pilot, a bus driver, a lawyer, a nurse, a policeman who didn’t know all the details of their job? Of course you wouldn’t. Then why trust Bible teachers who don’t do the work necessary to teach good and helpful doctrine? I read a lot of Christian books, and I am becoming agitated at how flippantly many authors give their interpretations of what the Bible says when they have not taken the time to do even the most elementary of studies.

I challenge my readers, if you want to be a good and healthy teacher, to do your work. Or, if these sound too hard, to consider those who do this work as worthy of respect.