Making sense of Scripture - Part three
Interpretation and Context
OBJECTIVITY AND SUBJECTIVITY
The great danger of private interpretation is the clear and
present danger of subjectivism in biblical interpretation. The
danger is more widespread than is often immediately apparent. I
see it manifested very subtly in the course of theological
discussion and debate.
Many times after discussing the meaning of a passage, people
rebut my statements by simply saying to me, "Well, that's your
opinion." What could such a remark mean? First, it is perfectly
obvious to all present that an interpretation I have offered as
my own is my opinion. I am the one who just gave the opinion. But
I don't think that is what people have in mind.
A second possible meaning is that the remark indicates an
unspoken rebuttal employing the guilt by association fallacy. By
pointing out that the opinion offered is mine, perhaps the person
feels that is all that is necessary to rebut it, since everyone
knows the unspoken assumption: any opinion which comes from the
mouth of R.C. Sproul must be wrong because he never has been and
never could be right. However hostile people may be to my
opinions, I doubt that is what they mean when they say, "That's
I think the third alternative is what most people mean:
"That's your interpretation, and that's fine for you. I don't
agree with it, but my interpretation is equally valid. Though our
interpretations are contrary and contradictory, they can both be
true. Whatever you like is true for you and whatever I like is
true for me." This is subjectivism.
Subjectivism takes place when the truth of a statement is
not merely expanded or applied to the subject, but when it is
absolutely determined by the subject. If we are to avoid
distortion of Scripture, we must avoid subjectivism from the
In seeking an objective understanding of Scripture, we do
not thereby reduce Scripture to something cold, abstract, and
lifeless. What we are doing is seeking to understand what the
word says in its context before we go about the equally necessary
task of applying it to ourselves. A particular statement may have
numerous possible personal applications, but it can only have one
correct meaning. Alternate interpretations which are
contradictory and mutually exclusive cannot both be true unless
God speaks with a forked tongue.
Hence, we are concerned with setting forth the goals of
sound biblical interpretation. The first such goal is to arrive
at the objective meaning. of Scripture and to avoid the pitfalls
of distortion caused by letting interpretations be governed by
Biblical scholars make a necessary distinction between what
they call exegesis and exegesis. Exegesis means to explain what
Scripture says. The word comes from the Greek word meaning, "to
guide out of." The key to exegesis is found in the prefix "ex"
which means "from" or "out of." To exegete Scripture is to get
out of the words the meaning that is there, no more and no less.
On the other hand, eisegesis has the same root but a
different prefix. The prefix eis, also coming from the Greek,
means "into." Thus, eisegesis involves reading into the text
something that isn't there at all. Exegesis is an objective
enterprise. Eisegesis involves an exercise in subjectivism.
All of us have to struggle with the problem of subjectivism. The
Bible often says things we do not want to hear. We can put
earmuffs on our ears and blinders on our eyes. It is much easier
and far less painful to criticize the Bible than to allow the
Bible to criticize as. No wonder Jesus frequently concluded His
words by saying, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (e.g.,
Luke 8:8; 14:35).
Subjectivism not only produces error and distortion, but it
breeds arrogance as well. To believe what I believe simply
because I believe it or to argue that my opinion is true simply
because it is my opinion is the epitome of arrogance. If my views
cannot stand the test of objective analysis and verification,
humility demands that I abandon them. But the subjectivist has
the arrogance to maintain his position with no objective support
or corroboration. To say to someone, "If you like to believe what
you want to believe, that's fine; I'll believe what I want to
believe," only sounds humble on the surface.
Private views must be evaluated in light of outside evidence
and opinion because we bring excess baggage to the Bible. No one
on the face of this Earth has a perfectly pure understanding of
Scripture. We all hold some views and entertain some ideas that
are not of God. Perhaps if we knew precisely which of our views
were contrary to God, we would abandon them. But to sort them out
is very difficult. Thus, our views need the sounding boards and
honing steel of other people's research and expertise.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
In the Reformed churches of the sixteenth century, a
distinction was made between two kinds of elders: teaching elders
and ruling elders. Ruling elders were called to govern and
administer the affairs of the congregation. Teaching elders, or
pastors, were responsible primarily for teaching and equipping
the saints for ministry.
I am convinced that now, as much as ever, the church needs
an educated clergy. Private study and interpretation must be
balanced by the collective wisdom of the teachers. Please do not
misunderstand. I am not calling the church to return to the
pre-Reformation situation in which the Bible was held captive by
the clergy. I am rejoicing that people are starting to study the
Bible on their own and that the blood of the Protestant martyrs
was not shed in vain. What I am saying is that it is wise for
laymen involved in Bible study to do it in connection with or
under the authority of their pastors or professors. It is Christ
himself who has ordered His church so as to endow some with the
gift of teaching. That gift and that office must be respected if
Christ is to be honored by His people.
It is important that teachers have proper education. To be
sure, occasionally there arise some teachers who, though
unschooled and untrained, nevertheless have an uncanny intuitive
insight into Scripture. But such people are extremely rare. More
often we face the problem of people calling themselves to the
role of teacher who are simply not qualified to teach. A good
teacher must have sound knowledge and the necessary skills to
unravel difficult portions of Scripture. Here the need for
mastery of language, history, and theology are of critical
If we examine the history of the Jewish people in the Old
Testament, we see that one of the most severe and abiding threats
to Israel was the threat of the false prophet or false teacher.
More often than by the hand of the Philistines or the Assyrians,
Israel fell to the seductive power of the lying teacher.
The New Testament bears witness to the same problem in the
primitive Christian church. The false prophet was like the
hireling shepherd who was concerned more for his own wages than
for the welfare of the sheep. He thought nothing of misleading
the people: leading them into error or to evil. Not all false
prophets speak falsely out of malice; many do so out of
ignorance. From the malicious and the ignorant we should flee. We
need teachers who have sound knowledge and whose hearts are not
set against the Word of God.
Private Bible study is an important means of grace for the
Christian. It is a privilege and a duty for all of us. In His
grace and kindness toward us, God has provided not only gifted
teachers in His church to assist us but His own Holy Spirit to
illumine His Word and search out its application to our lives. To
sound teaching and diligent study God gives blessing.