Everyone wants to be understood properly – even God. In communication, a proper understanding can only be achieved when a clear message is properly interpreted. If the sender does not clearly convey his message, or if the receiver does not properly interpret the sender’s message, miscommunication and misunderstanding results. This happens all the time with the Bible. We often misunderstand it because we fail to interpret God’s words properly.
Interpreting the Bible is more difficult than interpreting a modern text or conversation because it reflects a different era, geography, language, worldview, culture, literary genres, and idioms. Oddly enough, the vast majority of Christians are never trained in Biblical interpretation. Given this circumstance, it’s no wonder the Bible is misinterpreted and misapplied so much.
While I have no intention of using this blog to teach a course on Biblical hermeneutics, I would like to explore one simple hermeneutical principle – the context principle – and show how failure to employ it properly has resulted in the misunderstanding of many Biblical passages.
The context principle is very simple: The meaning of any sub-text is determined by the larger context in which it appears. Words in isolation from other words have no specific meaning, but only a range of possible meanings. Meaning is determined by the relationship of words to one another. The same is true of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Meaning flows from the larger to the smaller, not the reverse. For example, what is the meaning of “strike”? The answer depends on what is being discussed: baseball, bowling, labor unions, lighting a match, or engaging in physical altercations. Apart from a context, we don’t know. Linguistic meaning is like viewing a painting. If we restrict our view to just one millimeter of the painting, it is impossible to understand what is being painted. Only by stepping back and viewing the painting as a whole can we make sense of each brushstroke and see how each contributes to the meaning and beauty of the whole.
This principle is so simple that you may be inclined to wonder why someone would need to be trained in it for proper Biblical interpretation. You would be right. We all understand the principle and depend on it for interpreting virtually everything we hear and read. Unfortunately, this common sense principle is not commonly employed when it comes to Biblical interpretation. For the next several weeks I will provide examples of Biblical passages that are commonly misunderstood and misapplied for the simple fact that the context has been ignored and the words have been invested with new meaning by the interpreter.