The following sermon was delivered at Locust Grove Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky on the 7th day of January 2018, during the morning service:
Before I dive into the subject of why theological study is crucial for the Christian, I would really like to address something important. When you read the title of this post, you may have had certain doubts. You might have had one of these reactions: Theology? I don’t want to lose the simplicity of faith! Won’t I substitute thought for action? I mean, theology has caused divisions – theology uses big words, and it just complicates communication. Isn’t theology all based on speculation, and doesn’t theology major on minor truths?
If you had a reaction similar to this, you’re not alone. You see, a large number of people in the church, unfortunately try to avoid theology and all that goes along with it like avoiding some plague. Most people have strong doubts about theology – but let me encourage you by saying that theology is not a bad thing. In fact, if theology is done with the right motive, it is a most glorious thing. With that said, let’s dive in deeper into why we should study theology and why it is definitely a good thing.
First of all, what is theology? Theology, in its literal translation is the study of God. The meaning of the word comes from two separate words: Theo (meaning God) and ology (meaning study). Essentially, theology is the study of God. Henry Clarence Thiessen gives us an even better way to understand the definition of theology, saying that “we may define theology as the science of God and His relations to the universe.”¹ Why is this? Why is theology the science of God and how He relates to the universe? Because in Christian theology, you have to include many different doctrines. Throughout years of study, we now include every Christian doctrine to this idea of theology. Doctrines such as:
- the doctrine of revelation (the study of how God reveals Himself to us, etc.)
- the doctrine of God (this includes His nature, His attributes, His decrees, His works, etc.)
- the doctrine of humanity (this includes our nature, and our relationship to both sin and a holy God)
- the doctrine of Christ (includes both the person and the work of Christ)
- the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (includes both the person and the work of the Holy Spirit)
- the doctrine of salvation (how it is that we are saved, what does that entail, etc.)
- the doctrine of the church (how is the church to be led, what is the purpose of the church, etc.)
- the doctrine of last things (consummation and what will happen when we die)
This was far from a complete list, but it definitely gives a good overview of what we consider to be theology today. It’s not just one idea, or a few scattered ideas – it is a science – the science of God. Theology is important because it deals with every day Christian life, as you can see clearly from the list above.
Why should we study theology? There are four main reasons why it should be important for Christians to study theology. So why should we sit down and enjoy studying theology?
1. Study Theology Because the Bible Teaches That Theology is Important
The first reason is because the Bible teaches us that theology is important. Look at Hosea 4:1-6:
“Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and also the fish of the sea disappear. Yet let no one find fault, and let none offer reproof; for you people are like those who contend with the priest. So you will stumble by day, and the prophet also will stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (NASB).
In the beginning verse, God tells the people of Israel that there is a case against them – because on top of many other things, there was no knowledge of God in the land. And this is an essential part of theology. We as theological students try to learn more and more about our God. We need the right knowledge of God as Christians. This passage from Hosea calls us to pursue that knowledge, and it does so through one of its many warnings found in verse 6: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest, since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” If God is unchangeable (which is one of His many attributes), then He can do the same thing to us. We can be spiritually destroyed and reap the consequences without knowledge of God. We as Christians, as God’s people, need to have knowledge about God. Also, similar instruction is found in Malachi 2:7, “for the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” In the local church, your pastor(s), deacons, elders, Sunday school teachers, or any other persons in leadership roles should help you in your personal study of the knowledge of God. This study is what we call theology. So first we see that the Bible teaches that study of theology is important.
2. Study Theology Because Jesus Demonstrated That Theology is Important
Secondly, we should study theology because Jesus demonstrated that theology is important. Let us look at Matthew 16:13-16:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (NASB)
What is pictured in this passage is that they are walking in a line and Jesus goes to each disciple individually and asks these questions. When it says that Jesus was asking the disciples, it has the action of beginning to ask and kept asking. Finally, after he got through all of the disciples, he got to Peter. And Peter said that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. The point: Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about Him. By doing this, He was demonstrating that theology is important to Him. If we cannot answer this fundamental question right, then we cannot dive further into theology, for if we have an answer any different than Peter’s, anything else we say is as flawed as the “wisdom” of this world.
3. Study Theology Because it is Important for Discipleship
Thirdly, to be a disciple we need to study theology. Remember, if we cannot answer who Jesus is correctly, we cannot begin to go anywhere else in Scripture. To be a true disciple of Christ, we have to know what Christ says, does, and thinks. The only way we can figure this out is by reading our Bibles and by studying theology. We need theology to help us in our walk with God. We need theology to be better ambassadors for Him. The Christian life may start out with a “blind” and simple faith, but God does not want us to stay there. God wants you and I to grow in our faith. God wants us to learn more about Him, and as we do we will be growing disciples.
4. Study Theology Because the Early Church Demonstrated That Theology is Important
Last, the early church demonstrated that theology is important. The early church had to rely on sound theology to safeguard against the all-too-frequent heresies that came about. Many of the major heresies really started after the apostle John died. Soon after his death was when Gnosticism was on its rise. This heresy affected people’s understanding of the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of humanity. If you ever decide to research Gnosticism, you will see that its impact was so sever that we are still trying to recover from this heresy. On a similar note, you even have to be careful when studying the heresies! Make sure you have a very solid foundation on the Bible before you work through those. There were many other heresies that came about that compelled the early Church to rely completely on sound theology. And that demonstrates the need for studying it.
Conclusion: Study Theology for the Glory of God
As I said in the introduction, if you study theology with the right motive, then it is a most glorious thing. Since we know why we should study theology, then we need to find out what the right motive is for studying theology. So what is this right motive? The answer to that is really the answer to why we do anything. We as Christians do everything to bring praise, honor, and glory to our sovereign King. That is always the end goal in everything that we do. Our motive for studying theology is no different. We study theology for God’s glory. If our motive is anything other than to learn more about our Creator, and to grow in our relationship with Him, then we are wrong and need to desperately repent. There are many who study theology so that they can answer all the questions, and be the smartest person in the room – quite plainly, that is wrong. They need to repent because it is clear that God is displeased with that. Truthfully, they would be better off not studying theology in the first place. So before starting to study theology, ask yourself why you are doing this. If the answer is not so that you can grow in order to glorify God, then wait until you can answer that way.
Thiessen, Henry C. Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 1-2.
Michael Chadwick is the pastor of Jensen Baptist Church in Pineville, Kentucky. He and his wife Kari live in Pineville, where they both study at the acclaimed Clear Creek Baptist Bible College.
This message was originally delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on the 9th day of December 2015:
Christmas: A Christ-Celebration
Christmas is a pretty big deal. It’s the biggest celebration of the year with decorations of lights, Christmas trees, wreaths, garland, candles, ribbons, and much more. It is a time of buying, wrapping, and giving gifts. We have foods that celebrate Christmas and colors that celebrate Christmas. There is even an entire genre of music dedicated to celebrating Christmas. And while it is true that the majority of the celebratory elements of Christmas have pagan origins, it doesn’t mean Christians today can’t celebrate Christmas. John Piper said recently,
“So my counsel is to give all your efforts to making your children as happy as they can possibly be with every kind of surprise that is rooted in the true meaning of Christmas. Let your decorations point to Jesus. Let your food point to Jesus. Let your games point to Jesus. Let your singing point to Jesus. Out-rejoice the world, out-give the world, out-decorate the world, and let it all point to Jesus.”¹
In any case, we should celebrate during this Christmas season. What happened Christmas night has never happened before, and there will never be anything like it again. It was the day that Jesus entered into human history. Christmas at its epicenter is a celebration of Christ. In fact, that’s what the word Christmas actually means. It is made up of two words: Christ and Mass. Christ meaning Messiah, and mas or Mass meaning a celebration or festival. Christmas is a Christ celebration.
But why celebrate Christmas? Because Jesus entered into human history. We will see in our passage of Scripture for today exactly why we should celebrate. In this passage, the author of the third Gospel gives us a brief account of the day that Jesus entered the world. It is the Christmas story which is found in Luke’s Gospel, and it is cause for great rejoicing. We will see that the birth of Jesus was historic, messianic, and humble. And we will see the great implications this has for God’s plan of salvation. So let’s read the text:
The Text: Luke 2:1-7
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
I. The Birth of Jesus Was Historic (2:1-3)
First, we see that Jesus’ birth was historic. There were certain historical circumstances surrounding His birth and entrance into human history. There were actual events, also recorded in extrabiblical literature, which God brought about by His sovereignty. They were things which God orchestrated to ensure that Jesus would be born fulfilling the requirements for being the Messiah. Listen to vv. 1-3:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.”
Luke is describing the historical circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. He says that Caesar Augustus issued a decree for all the world to be registered. This decree was for the purpose of assessing taxes. It was tax time, and Caesar decreed that everyone in the Roman world be registered for this taxation. This registration for taxes was for “all the world,” that is, all areas of the world under Roman rule. For the Israelites and the people of Jesus’ day, this was their whole world – Rome dominated most of the territory. The Romans were mighty in power then and they continued to be many centuries later of course. But God was mightier in power, and He used this decree for His own purposes (as we shall see later).
Apparently, this was the first taxation when a man named Quirinius was governor of Syria. According to history, he was an administrator and a soldier who was usually victorious in his battles. And in v. 3 we read that everyone was submissive to this taxation: “And all went to be registered, each to his own town.” This taxation required Jews to travel back to their ancestral homeland. They would have to go to their own city to be registered. So in order to obey the law, Jews would need to go back to their homelands where they were born and raised to register for the taxation. It is important to take note of this because Mary is about to give birth, and she is not in Bethlehem where Jesus was supposed to be born. Micah 5:2 promises that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” If Mary gave birth to Jesus anywhere else, then Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah. He must fulfill what had been previously spoken about Him. You see, Mary was apparently in Nazareth with Joseph. Nazareth was her hometown: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Luke 1:26-27a). Mary is about to give birth to the supposed Son of God, but they are in Nazareth. If her water breaks in Nazareth, then the Christmas story no longer exists, there can be no Messiah, and God’s promise would have failed; the people of Israel would need to keep waiting for the real Messiah. That’s why the taxation is so pressing for making sure that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem—Joseph would have gone to his hometown to register for the tax. And where would he need to travel in order to register for the tax? Bethlehem. That’s what we happening next. Joseph goes to Bethlehem with Mary right before she gives birth, and ends up giving birth to Jesus in the exact place where the Messiah was prophesied to be born.
So what we have in vv. 1-3 are the historical circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. He was born in real time just like any of us. We were all born at a certain year, when a certain president was in office, when certain things were taking place. If a baby were to have a biography written about his birth today, it might go something like this: “__________ was born when Barack H. Obama was president in 2016, nearing the end of his presidency because Donald Trump won the election.” Jesus was born in history. God was moving Caesar to issue that decree so that Jesus would be born in His prophesied birthplace. God was using history for His story.
II. The Birth of Jesus Was Messianic (2:4-5)
So we’ve seen that the birth of Jesus is historic (2:1-3), but secondly we see that Jesus’ birth was messianic. He was born under several circumstances that would make Him the Messiah. We see in vv. 4-5 that the baby in Mary’s womb would be the long-awaited Messiah who would save God’s people:
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”
Luke now focuses on the family of the child to be born: Mary and Joseph. They leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, because that was Joseph’s hometown. Joseph is compliant with the decree, and goes back to his ancestral hometown to register for this taxation. And he takes Mary with him on his trip. The mode of transportation is not stated—either they walked, rode donkeys, or took a caravan up to Bethlehem—but in any case, he and pregnant Mary went to Bethlehem.
It is interesting to see that Luke emphasizes messianic themes in describing their journey towards Bethlehem. They went to the “city of David,” and Joseph was “of the house and linage of David.” Why even point that out? Because somewhere down the line, Joseph is related to David. If you were in the lineage of David, it was considered royal—a privilege. David was Israel’s greatest king, and for those who knew the Old Testament, they would have known that the Messiah was prophesied to come from David’s family. He would be born in David’s royal lineage. The Messiah would be the seed of David, He would be David’s great grandson. Listen to these clear testimonies:
“And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:13-14).
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2).
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jer. 23:5-6).
It is palpable that this Messiah-Redeemer-Savior will be born in David’s royal lineage. And who would be Joseph’s son? Jesus. He wouldn’t be Joseph’s son by intimate conception, but he would be his son by divine conception. If Joseph marries Mary, then Jesus would be born in David’s royal lineage.
So, they leave Nazareth and are now in this place called Bethlehem, which is the city of David. They went because this was Joseph’s city—he was of the “house and lineage of David.” They still weren’t married, for Luke says that Joseph went with “Mary his betrothed.” Their marriage had not yet fully consummated. They were still only pledged to be married.
Now, she was not required to be registered with him, but she goes with him anyway. Of course, no couple would want to be separated at such a crucial point in their relationship. So they went together to the city of David to register for the census. Jesus’ birth was about to be messianic. If He was going to be born in Bethlehem, He would be the long awaited Savior who would suffer for sin and bring salvation to God’s people.
III. The Birth of Jesus Was Humble (2:6-7)
We have seen that the birth of Jesus was historic (2:1-3), and that the birth of Jesus was messianic (2:4-5), now finally we shall see that Jesus’ birth was humble. He was born under very humble conditions—as a helpless baby in a manger. Luke concludes the narrative of Jesus’ birth in this way:
“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
When they arrived in Bethlehem, it was time for Mary to deliver. She was having contractions, and her water broke. They had better find a local hospital, or an inn (which was a public motel), or somewhere to give birth to the Son of God. They had better let everyone know what’s about to happen. They better roll out the red carpet. But they didn’t—none of that happens.
Jesus was born in very humble circumstances, as a helpless, crying baby in a manger. The time came for her to give birth, says Luke, and she gave birth to her firstborn. Jesus is called here her “firstborn son,” signaling that He would have all the benefits of an inheritance. The firstborn son was always given the family inheritance. That is yet another important detail suggesting that He would receive the benefits of Joseph’s royal lineage. It also indicates that she would have other children after Jesus was born (see Matthew 13:55-56).
Once He was born, Mary wrapped Him in swaddling cloths. These were pieces and strips of clothes bound together, believed to keep the limbs of a child straight. They were wrapped around newborns to help their limbs grow correctly. And she laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the public motel, the inn. The manger, which was an animal feeding trough was the first King-size bed there ever was. This was not a bright and beautiful night, as depicted by many of our Christmas cards today. It would have been dark, smelly, and unsanitary. The birth of the Son of God doesn’t get any more humble than that.
If God has been sovereignly orchestrating the circumstances surrounding the entrance of Jesus into human history, then why didn’t He have a royal place for Jesus to be born? God was clearly working behind the scenes to get Caesar to issue a decree. He was obviously ensuring that Mary and Joseph would be in a relationship, and eventually go to Bethlehem – so why didn’t God prepare a royal throne upon which Jesus could be born? Because the manger was not outside of God’s sovereign decree.
God chose that manger as the place for Jesus to be born. It was a demonstration of His humility—God became a man and took on flesh. Though He was God, He took nothing for Himself—not even an appropriate birthplace. Paul expounds on this in Philippians when he writes,
“Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
The birth of Christ was historic, messianic, and humble. Just as God has been in control of this world since the beginning, God was in control of the circumstances surrounding His birth. The entrance of sin in the world didn’t throw off God’s plan of salvation – His plan to eradicate sin happened through the entrance of Jesus in the world. Rome’s crucifixion of Jesus didn’t throw off God’s plan of salvation – God’s plan of salvation in Jesus started with a decree issued from Rome. Having no royal place to be born didn’t thwart God’s plan of salvation – He was laid in a borrowed manger at His birth, and He was laid in a borrowed tomb at His death. In God’s sovereign plan, there was a time for Jesus to be born and there was a time for Jesus to die.
God came to earth that wonderful Christmas night so that He would grow up, live the perfect life, and die in our place on a cross, satisfying God’s wrath against us because sin. Then he would raise from the dead on the third day, and anyone who trusts in Him can be saved and have eternal life. Let us celebrate this historic, messianic, and humble Jesus this day. Let everything today be a Christ-celebration.
“Rethinking Santa,” article by Tony Reinke on December 13, 2013; accessed December 24, 2016. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/rethinking-santa
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”—Michael Crichton.
Studying the history of any field or subject is important. For Christians, there is perhaps no historical study more important than the study of our Christian heritage and history. For several reasons, studying church history is important, and I would argue necessary to truly appreciating and understanding the Christian faith. What then, are the reasons for studying church history?
1. Christianity is a historical religion. As I said above, knowing the history of any field is important – especially the history of Christianity. It can be confidently said that Christianity has made many positive contributions to the world we now live in. More in fact, than any other movement, religion, or individual in the history of the world. Further, the waves made by the towering individuals of church history have rippled into our own theologies and practices, and they deserve a hearing. That’s where church history comes in. In this field of study, we can sit with individuals such as Irenaeus who combated early heresies, Tertullian who contributed to the doctrine of the Trinity, and Basil of Casearea who strengthened peoples understanding of the Spirit. We can be discipled by the greatest theologians who ever lived like St. Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others. Christianity didn’t begin yesterday. It has a history, like everything else, and it deserves to be studied, or what it is today will not be appreciated to the full extent that it could be.
2. To correct mistaken views about what has happened in history. This is, perhaps, one of the most vital reasons for studying church history. There are many concepts in theology and many practices in churches of different denominations that have not always existed. Many seem to have the understanding that our denominations, beliefs and practices have always been what they are today. However, Baptist churches have not always existed. Neither have Pentecostals been around for centuries, along with Methodists, Presbyterians, and other mainline denominations. Also, Roman Catholicism was not the first form of Christianity; it has not always been what it is today. It was, by no means, the dominant form of Christianity since the time of the apostles. These are only a few examples, and if church history is actually studied, these mistaken views can be corrected.
3. Spiritual Nourishment. This is a very practical reason for studying church history. God spoke throughout church history, just as He does today. God has never been silent. God revealed many things to individuals of church history, and it would be foolish to think that we are more intelligent than they were. For the most part, they read the same Bible that we have today. Charles Spurgeon remarks about the ignorance of not studying what God has revealed to them: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.“¹ The theologians of church history will serve spiritual nourishment to us today through their defenses of Christian doctrine against the earliest heresies, their rich interpretation of Scripture, and their brilliant philosophies.
Church history deserves our careful consideration and study. There are several other important reasons for studying church history, but these three cast the net widely, and I think rightfully so. Would you agree? What would you add to the list? What would you change or take away?
1. Cited in Rediscovering the Church Fathers, by Michael A. G. Haykin (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 14.
The need for biblical interpretation is ever-increasing in our postmodern age, especially considering the growing pluralism in the world. Since God is the ultimate authority in all matters, and we believe that the Bible is God’s very words, we look to the Bible for a solid foundation to all matters of life. Because of this, we want to know what the Bible means. In order to find this out, we need to reflect on how the meaning of the Bible is obtained.
Since we know that the books and letters of the Bible are a written form of communication, we know that three main components are involved, because these three components are part of any written communication. These are: the text/writing, the reader, and the author. First, it is important that we evaluate all three and see if they could be the determiners of meaning. We are asking, “Who or what determines the meaning of a biblical text?” The text cannot be the determiner of meaning because it is an inanimate object, and cannot produce meaning—it may convey meaning, but can never produce it. The reader cannot be the determiner of meaning, because if that is true, then there can be as many meanings as there are readers—and they cannot all be right. The author as the determiner of meaning is the only legitimate conclusion. The author meant one thing by what he wrote, and that intention was fixed at the time of writing—and cannot be changed. All literature is rightly interpreted this way.
Therefore, the main goal in interpreting the Bible is determining what the author meant by what he wrote. This goal that we want to reach cannot happen spontaneously, however. There are many barriers to discovering what the author meant by what he wrote. Historical barriers, cultural barriers, linguistic or language barriers, and philosophical barriers. Because of these barriers, the need for biblical interpretation is created.
First of all, we are centuries in time difference from the authors of the Old and New Testaments. There were things that were common to them back then, that may not be to us today. For instance, we cannot necessarily interpret Leviticus through a 21st century lens. Second, there are many cultural differences that cause a barrier between us and the time of the biblical writers. Namely, oaths and marriages were quite different in that day than in ours. It would not be sound, then, to think of Mary and Joseph’s “betrothal” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56) as simply an engagement in our time because engagement is culturally relevant to our world today. The culture then was much different than today, and this creates the need for biblical interpretation. Third, the very language of the Bible is not the language we speak. The original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew (with portions of Aramaic), and the New Testament in Greek. Hebrew and Greek are an entirely different language, with different letters, usages, rules, and phrases. Biblical interpretation is important because in order to determine what the author meant by what he wrote, we must look at the original languages as best as we can. Finally, the philosophy of the Bible is very different than that of our 21st century. We live in a postmodern world with pluralistic ideologies. This creates the need for biblical interpretation because the philosophy of the Bible is not pluralistic, and it is not hedonistic either, like our world is today. People today doubt the existence of a Triune God, while the people of Bible times just assumed His existence—their philosophy was different.
So then, discovering the author’s intended meaning will require biblical interpretation in light of all of these barriers that might hinder us from finding out the meaning that the author intended.
[Below is an addition, published on July 29, 2017]
So do we arrive at the true meaning of the Bible based on our own interpretation of the Bible? Can we arrive at a biblical interpretation on our own? Do we all have an equally valuable opinion about what Scripture means? Does everyone have a shot at biblical interpretation and can we use any rules of interpretation we want? It’s not exactly as simple as it may sound.
Consider the oft spoken phrase, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This is easily the most cliche statement uttered in Christian circles, usually when there is disagreement about the meaning of a text. And it is becoming quite wearisome to continually hear it spoken as a defense of one’s own interpretation of a text. Usually they add, “That’s your interpretation and this is mine.” I will go ahead and say at the outset that there are two fundamental reasons why this assumption is not only wrong, but even heretical in my estimation. First of all, it allows for everyone and anyone to have any opinion whatsoever about the meaning of Scripture. And secondly, it doesn’t allow the real meaning of the Bible to be preserved and taught.
Let’s deal with the first reason. It may sound narrow-minded to say that no one should be allowed to have as many opinions as they want about the meaning of Scripture, and yes – it is narrow-minded, but in a good way and I will explain this more later. The fallacy with this idea that everyone has a “say-so” concerning the meaning of Scripture is found in the implications and logical conclusions of that approach. What this approach to interpretation implies is that there is no real, concrete, or reliable interpretation of any biblical text whatsoever. If everyone has an equal say in what a text means, and if everyone’s assumption holds equal value (what this assertion implies), then there can be no real meaning. If A is equally valuable to B, C, and D, and they are all esteemed as possibly correct interpretations, then either everybody is right or everybody is wrong.
Now, let’s be honest – most of those interpretations are likely going to contradict one another. Most of the time varying interpretations contradict one another, otherwise there would be no disagreement leading to a round table discussion where everyone gives their opinions about meaning! And in the case when those interpretations do contradict, plain sense would tell you that not everybody around the table has an equal say about what a biblical text means. Either they are insane, or the authors of the Bible were insane. If Billy thinks the verse means that Scripture is without error, and Sally thinks the verse means that Scripture is full of error, then somebody is wrong because those two assertions contradict one another. Both of them might be wrong, but both of them cannot simultaneously be right.
The second reason this approach to interpretation is wrong also has to do with consistency – the author’s original meaning is no longer preserved. Consider that we do not believe it to be ethical or right to take a historical document and twist it anyway we want. When a document is written in history, the author’s meaning is sealed forever. Therefore, the only correct interpretation of any historical document must be in harmony and accordance with what the author really meant by what he wrote. We dare not do this with great works in history such as the writings of Eusebius, or Josephus, or the Constitution. One could possibly be jailed for reading something into those documents that was not intended by the original author.
So then, it is absolute insanity to suppose that it is wrong to do this with historical works, but it is right to do this with the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, supremely more valuable than any historical document – and like any historical document its meaning is sealed in history forever. The only way one can discover its meaning is by discovering the author’s original meaning – which we are very much able to do.
But note the insanity of interpreting a written text in any fashion desirable: If I text my wife that we need milk and eggs, she is not free to interpret that in any way she wants, and neither is anybody else. To take it a step further, let’s suppose I send her that text on Monday, and she doesn’t read it until Wednesday. Can she now interpret that anyway she wants, because it is an old message? I would believe her to be insane if she sat down with a group of her friends for two hours trying to figure out what I meant by that text. How strange would it be for each of her friends to offer a different interpretation of what I meant by that text. One might say, “Well here’s what I think – he probably wants you to buy rice milk and snake eggs.” Another remarks, “Your husband strikes me as the type that likes to get prepared, so he probably wants you to bring home a cow and a few chickens so that you never have to go to the market to buy milk and eggs ever again.” Another says, “Well, let’s think about it this way – what do you get when you mix milk and eggs? Usually scrambled eggs, right? He probably has a craving for some scrambled eggs from Cracker Barrel.”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Clearly, I meant that my wife needs to pick up a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs from the supermarket. But with a philosophy of interpretation that allows for anyone to interpret what I wrote in any way they want, the original meaning is lost and no longer preserved. In fact, the value of my text becomes virtually worthless. The interpretations make my text obsolete. My text no longer has any value if it is subject to this many interpretations. Neither are we allowed to do this with the Bible!
It doesn’t matter what your interpretation is, and it doesn’t matter what my interpretation is. What matters is the right interpretation. We must answer the question: What did author of the text mean by what he wrote to the original audience?
Clearly, there are many other rules of interpretation to follow when seeking to discover the author’s original meaning. But all of those rules must flow from pursuing the answer to this one question. Therefore, any interpretation which does not agree with the author’s original meaning is false and should be rejected. And we discover the original meaning through careful study of the context, study of history, study of the original languages, and many other things. I understand that many of us do not have either the time nor the professional training required to use all of those means listed to discover the author’s original meaning. But there is one rule of interpretation upon which we must all agree. And this one rule of interpretation is fundamental to understanding any verse of Scripture, and it is certainly fundamental to discovering the author’s original meaning by what he wrote. In addition, while we may not know much of how to use those means of discovering the author’s meaning listed above, this one rule alone will suffice. In fact, all of those other means proceed from this one rule, therefore even using them is an extension of using this one rule (and to some degree is necessary to using this one rule in its fullness). This one rule concerns consistency, and it is this: We must interpret Scripture with Scripture. We must do so, brothers and sisters. This is to say, what we assert as an interpretation of any biblical text must agree with Scripture as a whole. If our interpretation is in disagreement with any other verse, idea, or teaching in Scripture then our interpretation is wrong and must be changed.
To the example earlier, if Sally asserts that the correct interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that Scripture contains error, then we must endeavor to discover if that interpretation agrees with the rest of Scripture. And anybody who knows their Bible even remotely understands that 2 Timothy 3:16, and Scripture as a whole refutes that interpretation. The Bible itself claims that it is a book that should be received as the divine revelation of God, for that is what it is. Therefore, it is without error and inerrant. So Sally’s interpretation is wrong.
“Well, that’s just your interpretation.” Let us both stop saying this and encouraging others to do so. We are not free to interpret the Bible any way we want – we are only free to discover the author’s original meaning by what they wrote in the sacred text. Let us study the Scriptures daily to discover their true meaning, and may our interpretations be in unison with the overall teaching of Scripture.
You’ve Got Questions: Were the Ancient Manuscripts of the Bible Transmitted Accurately?
When discussing the Bible with non-Christians, one might hear the objection: “Yes, the Bible reads that way now, but everyone knows that it has been changed.” Does this objection have any substance to it? How do we know that the Bible in our hands is a faithful transmission of the words that the inspired authors originally wrote?
The Old Testament originally was written in Hebrew, with a few Aramaic portions, between 1400 and 430 B.C. The New Testament was written in Greek between A.D. 45 and 90. The original copies of the ancient biblical texts are called autographs. All autographs of biblical books have been lost or destroyed, though we have thousands of ancient copies. The process of studying and comparing these copies to reconstruct the wording of the original is called textual criticism. This area of study flourished in the 16th Century with the introduction of the printing press, the revival of learning in Europe, and the Reformation. Since then, this science has continued to develop, reaching new heights with the discovery of many ancient manuscripts in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Most scholars agree that text criticism has served to confirm the reliable transmission of the Old and New Testament manuscripts. Furthermore, no text in question even affects Christian doctrine. Most unsolved textual issues have little or no doctrinal significance.
Our culture today is very accustomed to technology and advanced methods of communication, so sometimes we have suspicion towards more ancient methods of literature production. However, it should be noted that ancient Jewish rabbis and early Christian scribes usually exercised great precision in the copying of biblical texts. Jewish scribes followed detailed systems for counting letters in manuscripts and checking for accidental variations. Likewise, Christian scribes showed great caution, often having multiple correctors read through their copies to check for errors. Inevitably, all hand-copied manuscripts have some variations, but striking accuracy is seen in most ancient copies of our Old and New Testaments.
Have you ever heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In 1947, the first part of a cache of ancient Jewish documents was discovered in caves near the Dead Sea. A young Arab goat herder investigated a cave after throwing a rock in and hearing a piece of pottery (a scroll jar) break. The documents discovered in these caves apparently belonged to a Jewish sect, the Essenes, who lived in a separatists community in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. In addition to the various sectarian documents and other extra-biblical literature found in the caves, scholars have found portions of all Old Testament books except Esther and Nehemiah. These manuscripts, which date from roughly 250 B.C. to A.D. 50, have come to be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have had significant Old Testament manuscripts before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, like the Leningrad Codex (A.D. 1008) and the Aleppo Codex (A.D. 900), but the Dead Sea Scrolls (which are nearly identical to the later manuscripts of the Old Testament) pushed the Hebrew manuscript evidence back a millennium earlier. The Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed that the Hebrew books of the Bible were meticulously and faithfully copied.
In addition to ancient Hebrew texts, we also have ancient copies of the Old Testament translated into several other languages: Greek, Latin, Syriac, etc. Ancient translations of the Old Testament sometimes help in the deciphering of a difficult Hebrew word or phrase. More importantly, these texts sometimes can serve as helpful witnesses to variant readings in the ancient Hebrew.
Even within the Bible itself, we find evidence of New Testament documents being hand-copied and circulated (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:15-16). As of right now, we have nearly six thousand ancient manuscripts or portions of manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest extant fragment of the New Testament, which is John 18:31-33, 37-38, comes from about A.D. 130. Here’s why is it important to note that we have this many ancient manuscripts: No other ancient text comes even close to having this amount of early textual evidence. F. F. Bruce brings out this truth and is worth quoting at length:
“Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar’s Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS (manuscripts), but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Live (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty manuscripts of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. A.D. 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two manuscripts, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant manuscripts of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 B.C. ) is known to us from eight manuscript, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-438 B.C.). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest manuscripts of their works which are of any use are over 1,300 years later than the originals.” (1)
About 95 percent of textual variants in the numerous manuscripts are accidental; the unintentional variations introduced by tired or incompetent scribes. There were errors of sight, errors of hearing, writing, and poor judgment. But the remaining 5 percent of textual variants resulted from intentional activity on the part of scribes. Such changes like revising grammar or spelling, harmonizing similar passages, or conflating the text. (2)
Of course, with so many ancient texts at our disposal, we can dismiss most of the variants listed above, and therefore there is no need to cite the majority of variants in modern English translations. The Bible has proved over the centuries to be reliable and trustworthy, and is indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16b-17). Let us say with the psalmist David, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).