Understand What Thou Readest?

Read Hebrews 5:11-14 …

Oops! The universal code for “Well, I didn’t mean to do that!” How many of us haven’t had to say an “oops” every now and then, or maybe even something that might be described as more … colorful? We make mistakes. We drop the ball. We stand with a ripped grocery sack in our hand and watch, almost in slow motion, as the cans of corn and green beans roll across a parking lot. We walk thru the office, completely engrossed with our own business, and run into a co-worker carrying an armful of papers – papers which flutter to the floor in a classic Looney Tunes moment.

Making mistakes isn’t really the problem. Mistakes are a fact of life. We are only human and therefore produce error. The real problem isn’t making mistakes, but in not realizing that a mistake has occurred and then failing to fix it. In the spirit of that simple truth, and in keeping with the overall theme of the last several articles, taking a little time to examine some mistakes that can be made while interpreting the Bible may be beneficial. Well, maybe not mistakes that WE make (nudge, nudge), but mistakes that OTHER people make for sure (wink, wink)! Surely the most important book in history deserves one’s utmost when trying to find understanding and application. So, let’s take the time to look at some problems that might be encountered when looking for understanding from the Scriptures.

A longtime staple in the field of hermeneutics and exegesis is the textbook written by D. R. Dungan – somewhat dated now, but still valuable. In the 3rd chapter ,under the title “The Things that Hinder,” Dungan identifies the mistake of using the Bible to prove doctrines.[i] This is nothing new; in fact, even the Jews of the 1st century used the Scriptures to prove a doctrine that on the surface was obviously wrong. In Mark 7:10-13 Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes for their improper use of the Scriptures to relieve a person of the responsibility to honor their father and mother. By making the support that would have been given to parents “Corban” – a gift to God – they nullify a direct command from God. By doing this they were “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do” (7:13, NKJV). In our vernacular we might say that a text without context is a pretext for a proof text. In other words, we shouldn’t go to the Scriptures to prove what we assume is true. The Bible isn’t a book that should be used to prove our pet doctrines, it is the doctrine by which we should prove ourselves.

Professor Dungan identified several problems that can occur in both hermeneutics and exegesis, yet before leaving him there’s one other mistake Dungan notes when handling the Word of God. The root of this mistake is grounded in Paul’s instructions to Timothy when he said, “for the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers” (2 Tim. 4:3). As the applause grows louder and wallets get fatter, the desire to please the world becomes a hindrance to correctly interpreting the Scriptures.[ii] “Speak to us smooth things” (Isa. 30:10) becomes the cry, and in sadness too many that answer that cry.

The Scriptures are not a source for proving what we already think, nor should they be used as an ointment to sooth one’s own desires. When Paul speaks about examining ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), the only reliable standard for that examination is the Word in which we grow (1 Pet. 2:2).

[i] D. R. Dungan, Hermeneutics; A Text-book (Delight, Gospel Light Publishing Co., 1888), 39.

[ii] D. R. Dungan, 36-37.

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