1. Clarify the words and phrases used.
Most of us use a translated Bible. This means that words or phrases need to be studied for their meaning both in English and Greek. It will not do to assume that the English word is always exactly equivalent to the Greek or Hebrew word that it translates. And example of this is the key word ‘kingdom’. In English this almost always means a place, a geographical location. Although the word can have this meaning in some New Testament passages, yet often it would be better translated ‘rule’ or ‘reign’, a rather different concept. Another example of a word whose meaning is wider in the original than it is in modern English is ‘righteousness’. So it is obvious how important study is, even for a well-known text like Matthew 6:33!
2. Note the ‘terrain’.
That is to say, the Bible has within it many types of literature: prose, poetry, fable, proverb, allegory, parable, etc. One ought not to handle the prose of a Pauline epistle in the same way as the poetry of a Psalm.
In Job we find statements about God and the world which are not meant to be true. The book is a dramatic poem, the speakers disagree and fall into error, and the whole needs to be read before we can get the message. This is quite different from the use to which a Pauline letter may be put.
3. Note the immediate context.
Words plucked from mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, even sometimes mid-book, are in danger of being twisted. Read and understand the whole before separating the parts.
There is the story of the careless preacher whose bishop ironically suggested that he preach a sermon on ‘hang all the law and prophets’ (AV), a text wrenched from Matthew 22:40; or another of the missionary who saw the words ‘flee to Egypt’ (Matt. 2:13) as a command for him to do likewise. These are obvious examples of a practice which is perhaps the most frequent of all lapses in regard to the Bible.
Often a Biblical statement is taken from the context of the conversation being reported. Thus, for example, while no one thinks for a moment that we must all buy linen waistcloths because the Lord told Jeremiah to do so (Jer. 13:1), yet we have been told to ‘go, sell what you have, and give to the poor…’ (Mark 10:21) because Jesus told a rich young man to do this. In this regard a study of Coverdale’s advice is essential: we must ask ‘who is speaking?’ and ‘to whom?’
4. Know the background.
Although the main message of the Bible is available to anyone who will read it by itself, yet the meaning of various parts will be enhanced greatly if the historical and geographical background to the passage is known.
To pick an example, the meaning of Christ’s injunction about swearing oaths is clear enough (Matt. 5:33-37), but it is helpful to know something of the lengths to which the contemporary legalists went in avoiding the implications of the Old Testament teaching.
Psalm 137 benefits from geographical and historical knowledge in the reader. A glance at Babylon and Jerusalem on the map and an acquaintance with the history of Babylonish/Jewish relationships will go far to explain the tone of this song.
For some passages the background information is not only desirable: it is necessary. This is especially true of the prophets.
5. Note the Biblical context.
Because the Bible says so much about God, and our understanding is so limited, there are unresolved tensions in its pages, for example that between the sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility. It can never be right to resolve such tension by ignoring a Biblical doctrine.
6. The consensus of Christian opinion.
Amongst those who believer in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, there is agreement on a large range of important issues, such as the trinity, the atonement, and the deity of Christ. Sometimes this agreement is expressed in creeds or in confessi0ns. It is wisdom to treat these summaries of Bible teaching as fallible, but with great respect, and to ask ourselves whether we are certain that we have the Bible’s meaning clear when we find that we have stepped beyond the bounds of agreement reached by many different Christians over a long period of time.
It may indeed be that a new Luther or a new Calvin needs to emerge. But the onus is surely on the new interpretation to prove that it is accurate as over against the old, and we are wise to adopt a flexible conservatism.
(1) Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 7-16): The Quest for Power. Reproduced here with permission.