Various articles from the Church of God, Seventh Day
Denver, CO, USA
PERSONAL BIBLE STUDY AND PRIVATE INTERPRETATION
It is tacitly assumed that every home in America has a
Bible. The Bible remains the perennial best seller in this
country. Perhaps many of them serve merely as decorations or as a
convenient place to store photos and press flowers; handy also to
display in a prominent place when the pastor is visiting the
home. Because of the easy accessibility of Bibles, it is easy for
us to forget the awesome price that was paid for the privilege of
possessing a Bible written in our own language which we can
interpret for ourselves.
MARTIN LUTHER AND PRIVATE INTERPRETATION
Two of the great legacies of the Reformation were the
principle of private interpretation and the translation of the
Bible into the vernacular. The two principles go hand in hand and
were accomplished only after great controversy and persecution.
Scores of persons paid with their lives by being burned at the
stake (particularly in England) for daring to translate the Bible
into the vernacular. One of Luther's greatest achievements was
the translation of the Bible into German so that any literate
person could read it for himself.
It was Luther himself who brought the issue of private
interpretation of the Bible into sharp focus in the sixteenth
century. Hidden beneath the famous response of the Reformer to
the ecclesiastical and imperial authorities at the Diet of Worms
was the implicit principle of private interpretation.
When asked to recant of his writings, Luther replied,
"Unless I am convinced by Sacred Scripture or by evident reason,
I cannot recant. For my conscience is held captive by the Word of
God and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here
I stand, I can do no other, God help me." Notice that Luther
said, "Unless I am convinced...." In earlier debates at Leipzig
and Augsburg, Luther had dared to presume to interpret Scripture
contrary to interpretations rendered both by Popes and by church
councils. That he would be so presumptuous led to the repeated
charge of arrogance by church officials. Luther did not take
those charges lightly but agonized over them. He believed that he
could be wrong but maintained that the Pope and councils could
also err. For him only one source of truth was free from error.
He said, "The Scriptures never err." Thus, unless the leaders of
the church could convince him of his error, he felt duty-bound to
follow what his own conscience was convinced Scripture taught.
With this controversy, the principle of private interpretation
was born and baptized with fire.
After Luther's bold declaration and subsequent work of
translating the Bible into German at Wartburg, the Roman Catholic
Church did not roll over and play dead. The church mobilized its
forces into a three-pronged counter-offensive known as the
Counter Reformation. One of the sharpest prongs of the
counterattack was the formulations against Protestantism made by
the Council of Trent. Trent spoke of many of the issues raised by
Luther and other Reformers. Among those issues was the issue of
private interpretation. Trent said:
To check unbridled spirits it [the council] decrees that no
one, relying on his own judgment shall in matters of faith
and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian
doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with
his own conceptions presume to interpret them contrary to
that sense which Holy Mother Church to whom it belongs to
judge of their true sense and interpretation has held or
holds or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the
Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at
any lime be published.
Do you catch the flavor of this pronouncement? The statement
is saying, among other things, that it is the responsibility of
the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church to expound the
Scriptures and to declare the meaning of the Scriptures. This is
not to be a matter of private judgment or private opinion. This
statement by Trent was clearly designed to speak to the
Reformation principle of private interpretation.
If we examine the statement closely, however, we can see
that it contains a very serious misunderstanding of the Reformed
principle. Did the Reformers promote the notion of unbridledness?
Does private interpretation mean that an individual has the right
to interpret Scripture to suit himself? May a person interpret
Scripture in a whimsical, capricious manner with no restraint?
Should the private individual take seriously the interpretations
of others such as those who specialize in teaching the
Scriptures? The answers to these questions are obvious. The
Reformers were also concerned with ways and means to check
unbridled spirits. (That is one of the reasons they worked so
hard to delineate sound principles of biblical interpretation as
a check and balance to fanciful interpretation.) But the way in
which they sought to check unbridled spirits was not to declare
the teachings of churchmen infallible.
Perhaps the most crucial term that appears in Trent's
declaration is the word distorting. Trent says that no one has
the private right to distort the Scriptures. With that, the
Reformers most heartily agreed. Private interpretation never
meant that individuals have the right to distort the Scriptures.
With the right of private interpretation comes the sober
responsibility of accurate interpretation. Private interpretation
gives license to interpret but not to distort.
When we look back to the Reformation period and see the
brutal response of the Inquisition and the persecutions of those
who translated the Scriptures into the vernacular to make them
available for laymen, we are horrified. We wonder how the princes
of the Roman Catholic Church could be so corrupt as to torture
people for reading the Bible. It staggers our imagination even to
read of such things. What is often overlooked in such historical
reflection, however, is that there were many well-meaning people
involved in that action. Rome was convinced that, if you put the
Bible into the hands of unskilled laymen and left them to
interpret the Book, grotesque distortions would emerge and these
would lead the sheep astray, perhaps into everlasting torment.
Thus, to protect the sheep from embarking upon a course of
ultimate self-destruction, the Church resorted to corporal
punishment, even to the point of execution.
Luther was aware of the dangers of such a move but was
convinced of the clarity of Scripture. Thus, though the dangers
of distortion were great, he thought that the benefit of exposing
multitudes to the basically clear message of the gospel would
bring far more to ultimate salvation than to ultimate ruin. He
was willing to take the risk to turn the valve that might open a
"floodgate of iniquity."
Private interpretation opened the Bible for laymen, but it
did not do away with the principle of the educated clergy. Going
back to biblical days, the Reformers recognized that in Old and
New Testament practice and teaching there was a significant place
for the rabbi, the scribe, and the ministry of teaching. That
teachers should be skilled in the ancient languages, customs,
history, and literary analysis is still an important feature of
the Christian church. Luther's famous doctrine of the "priesthood
of all believers" has been frequently misunderstood. It does not
mean that there is no distinction between clergy and laity. The
doctrine simply maintains that every individual Christian has a
role to perform and a function to maintain in the total ministry
of the church. We are all called to be "Christ to our neighbor"
in a certain sense. But that does not mean that the church has no
overseers or teachers.
Many people have become disenchanted with the organized
church in our present culture. Some have over-reacted in the
direction of ecclesiastical anarchy. Out of the cultural
revolution of the 1960's with the advent of the Jesus movement
and the underground church came the cry of the young people, "I
don't have to go to anybody for a pastor; I don't believe in an
organized church or a structured government of the body of
Christ" In the hands of such people the principle of private
interpretation could be a license for radical subjectivism.
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.
Condensed from chapter two of Knowing Scripture by R.C Sprout.
Copyright 1977 by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of the
U.S.A., and used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers
Grove, IL 60515
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
What is the most common mistake people make when
interpreting the Bible? I am convinced it is taking verses out of
context. We have all seen it done, and if we are honest with
ourselves, we all have done it. It is an easy trap to fall into,
requiring little or no effort.
All we need do is read a verse in isolation from neighboring
verses, from the surrounding chapter, and from the complete book
to which the verse belongs. After all, who has the time to read
and study a whole chapter, much less an entire book, when it is
so convenient to fire off a proof-text that will simultaneously
defend our honor and silence all critics? And if one proof-text
will not do the trick, we can always string together a list of
verses which allow us to move convincingly from point A to
However, if we ignore the context of verses, we run the risk
of substituting our own preconceived ideas, limited knowledge,
and cultural values for the true world of the text. We mishandle
the Word of God. We muddy the waters of scriptural understanding
and mislead ourselves and others. We end up treating the Bible
like the drunk treated the lamp post-for support, not
Why then do we, as otherwise intelligent and sincere people,
take verses out of context? How could we have developed such a
bad Bible study habit? There are at least three factors which
have led us to a piecemeal approach to Scripture.
Chapter and verse divisions have subconsciously "trained" us
to ignore the context. Instead of seeing the entire flow of
thought, we see only a series of one liners - each with an
independent meaning of its own.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the way the Bible
was intended to be read. We would do well to remember that the
Bible in its original form had no chapter and verse divisions. In
fact, the first English Bible to contain the verse divisions we
use today was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560. Translators
and printers added chapter and verse numberings as an aid in
locating Bible sections, phrases, and words.
Unfortunately, over the years, we have allowed verse
numberings to become blinders upon our eyes, artificially
narrowing our field of vision. Verse numbers do serve a worth-
while purpose as a location tool but not necessarily as an
interpretation tool. For the most part, we should disregard
chapter and verse divisions, concentrating instead on reading the
Bible by units of thought.
Faulty assumptions about chapter and verse divisions have
led to a second assumption: if each verse is an independent unit,
then the entire Bible must be a jigsaw puzzle. To form a picture,
we simply take the puzzle pieces (verses) out of the Bible's box
and put them together.
If the pieces "fit" together in some sort of quasi-logical
fashion, we assume our interpretation must be right. And, if
everything "fits," then surely we could not have taken anything
out of context. If we had, it wouldn't have "fit." As silly as
this sounds, many of us have assumed this is the way God intended
the Bible to be interpreted.
Such a view, however, fails to recognize that the Bible
already is a complete picture with all the pieces in the right
places. Our job is not to create our own pictures - to cut and
paste and pound verses into place - but to see the picture placed
there for us by the biblical writers and to learn from its
LINE UPON LINE
A third reason for taking verses out of context comes from
the assumption that the Bible itself supports the idea of piecing
together verses from here and there. One verse in particular,
Isaiah 28:10, is offered as proof that this is so. The verse
says: "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept;
line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a
Is this verse a God-given formula for interpreting the
Bible? Or, is it an ironic example of a verse wrenched from its
context? The way to find out, of course, is to read the entire
chapter of Isaiah 28. (Please do so before reading the rest of
Now, let us notice a few points.
1. In verse I, we see to whom the chapter is addressed: "Woe to
the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim ..." (Ephraim is
another name for the northern kingdom of Israel).
2. Verses 2 through 6 contain Isaiah's message to Ephraim:
"Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one..." (a reference
to the nation of Assyria which stood poised to invade the
northern kingdom). When the Assyrians attack, the "drunkards of
Ephraim shall be trodden under feet" (verse 3). But a remnant of
those in Ephraim who are faithful to God will be spared (verses
3. Verses 7 and 8 offer a transition. Isaiah now addresses the
priests and prophets of the southern kingdom of Judah: "But they
also have erred through wine... the priest and the prophet have
erred through strong drink... they err in vision, they stumble in
judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so
that there is no place clean."
The priests and prophets of Judah were no less overcome with
wine than their cousins to the north in Ephraim. The declining
northern kingdom should have served as a warning to the priests
and prophets in Judah, but they also resisted Isaiah's message.
4. In verses 9 and 10, the drunken priests and prophets of Judah
speak. Notice the change in pronouns. In verses 1-8, Isaiah uses
the third person plural (them, they) to address the drunken
leaders. Now in verses 9 and 10, the drunkards respond to Isaiah,
or to God through Isaiah, with the third person singular (he).
Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to
understand doctrine? them that are weaned from milk, and
drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept,
precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a
little and there a tittle.
The priests and prophets are ridiculing Isaiah in verses 9
and 10. In essence, they are saying, "We are of age. Isaiah
doesn't need to teach us anything. Are we like children who must
be tutored again in the basic - line upon line; here a little,
there a little?"
The English translation for "precept ... upon precept,
precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line" is actually
a series of monosyllables in the Hebrew: say lasav say lasav kav
lakav kav lakav.
There is no exact translation for these words. They are
almost the equivalent to our "blab, blab, blab" but not quite as
meaningless. They represent either the drunken babblings of the
priests and prophets, or they are the repetitive sounds of Hebrew
children learning their lessons as children today would learn the
alphabet. Either way, verse 10 is the jeering reply of the
priests and prophets as they mock Isaiah's words.
5. Verses 11 through 13 offer God's reply to the scoffers. Since
they are making nonsense out of God's sense, God will truly speak
to them "with stammering lips and another tongue" (verse 11). In
other words, if the priests and prophets of Judah want to hear
babbling, they will hear plenty of it when the Assyrians invade.
Then the word of the Lord will become to their ears: say lasav
say lasav, kav laka, kav lakav (verse 13a).
The result will not be positive. It is not a formula to make
them better Bible interpreters. Instead, the word of the Lord
will become to them "line upon line" so that "they might go, and
fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken" (verse 13b).
6. The chapter then concludes in verses 14-29 with
further judgment on the rulers of Jerusalem, while also holding
up a Messianic prophecy.
After viewing Isaiah 28:10 in its context, can we properly
use the words of drunken prophets as a formula for interpreting
the Bible? The answer should be obvious.
However, lest some misunderstand, we are not suggesting that
it is wrong to compare scriptures with one another. That is a
valid principle, as long as we first understand each verse in its
own context before we start comparing.
It is the "Old McDonald" method of interpretation, which
pays no attention to context, that we should avoid: "Here a
verse, there a verse, everywhere a verse, verse" Such an approach
leads to distortion (Isaiah 28:10 being a case in point), because
these who use this method rarely consider the contexts of the
verses they are comparing and piecing together. In their hands, a
text without a context becomes a pretext.
May it become a cardinal principle among all who take the
Word of God seriously that all verses must be seen in relation to
their respective contexts. We do not appreciate it when people
twist the things we say out of context. How should God feel when
we distort His Word in similar fashion?
Scripture quotations were taken from the King James Version.
TO BE CONTINUED