Feb 12, 2012

Which Biblical Interpretation Is Correct?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. We know from Ephesians 4 that God has given the Church "pastors and teachers" to contribute toward the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry and for the edifying of the Body of Christ. This means that those who are called as teachers are to help us understand God's Word so that we grow in spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness.

But when our godly and gifted teachers differ significantly in their understanding of how certain passages of Scripture are to be understood, what do we do? When we hear different gifted and knowledgeable teachers disagree significantly in their understanding of some of these passages and themes how are those of us who are not called as teachers to know which view is correct? It doesn't seem that the Bible can be teaching all these views since they often differ fairly radically from one another (e.g., the nature of the 1,000 reign of Christ in Revelation 20).

What's a Christian to do?

A. Your question is an excellent one which all of us struggle with at one time or another in our Christian walk—especially before coming to a settled conviction on what Scripture actually teaches in relation to some of the varied interpretations which we hear taught.

Be a Berean

At first it may seem somewhat hopeless for those who sit under various teaching ministries to try and judge the accuracy of the doctrine which is being taught—but we are commanded to do so. In fact, the Ephesians passage mentioned above indicates that one of the purposes of the teaching ministry is to equip believers in such a way that they “should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine...” (Ephesians 4:14). We also have the example of the Bereans in the book of Acts which were said to be more fair minded than the believers in Thessalonica, in part because they “searched the Scripture daily to see if these things [being taught by Paul and Silas] were so” (Acts 17:11). So one of the first aspects of being a responsible believer is to search the Scriptures and use them as a basis for judging that which is being taught. If what is being taught is not consistent with the Scriptures, then it should not be accepted.

So far, so good! Isn't that what most believers do? Well...I'm not so sure. What do I mean by that?

At the time Acts 17 was written there was no New Testament so the Scriptures which were being searched were those of the Old Testament—which comprise the majority of the Bible. So the message here isn't just to search the Scriptures, but in the original context in Berea, it was to check the message of the teacher for consistency with what the Old Testament teaches. When the Bereans evaluated the message of Paul and Silas for consistency with the Old Testament Scriptures, they found their message to be validated. As a result, "many of them believed" that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah (Acts. 17:12). This has at least two significant implications concerning how we are to be “good Bereans.”

First, whatever is being taught must be consistent with the Old Testament. It can't spiritualize or redefine what has already been laid down by God in the majority of the Bible. Although He is free to enlarge upon what He has said in the Old Testament, He is bound by the meaning of language and His own character to maintain consistency with what has been plainly said in the past. Thus, teaching which uses the New Testament in ways which subvert the plain sense of various Old Testament passages would not pass muster with the Bereans! Nor should it do so with us today.

Second, how familiar are we with the Old Testament, especially when it comes to the historical context wherein various passages were given? It is precisely this lack of knowledge of the Old Testament context which enables some teachers to “hijack” the original meaning of a passage and use it as a launching pad to take their listeners to new destinations which would have been completely alien to the original Old Testament recipients. (To be clear, I'm not talking about progressive revelation here which is a subject for another day. Progressive revelation extends or adds to what was previously revealed, but does not subvert the original meaning.) I would suggest that a better grounding in the Old Testament—including its historical context—would go a long way to truly make us better Bereans. Of course part of the fault here lay at the feet of today's pastors and teachers who fail to provide their sheep with significant exposure to the Old Testament. When believers have a better grasp of the Old Testament, this knowledge serves as an extremely important anchor which tethers doctrinal teachings to their God-given moorings such that they cannot drift too far from the truth.

Take Passages at Face Value

To help us in reading the text plainly, be it Old Testament or New, we should consciously consider how we are reading the text. A helpful summary statement of how to approach the text is found in the Golden Rule of Interpretation by D. L. Cooper:

When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise. [1]

When you think about it, this is generally how we read any other book—or even the back of a cereal box. But it is surprising how many believers put on a spiritual or non-literal set of glasses when reading the Bible. The proper principles to be used when reading a text (hermeutics) may seem trivial, but can be a big deal and is often the primary reason for the divergence among interpretations. Inconsistency in how teachers read the text often leads to an elastic interpretation which differs significantly from what the original author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, meant to convey. [2] We want to stay close to what would normally be considered a literal interpretation, while recognizing figures of speech and symbols as Cooper's rule makes clear, so we are found among those whom Isaac Newton described:

"About the Time of the End, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the Prophecies, and insist upon their literal interpretation, in the midst of much clamor and opposition.” [3]

Related Passages as a Safety Net

Another principle that can help us assess the accuracy of what is being taught is to consider all that the Bible has to say on the subject. For instance, I once listened to Dr. James Kennedy teach for a full 45 minutes on the notion that there is one and only one resurrection. What was particularly telling to someone knowledgeable in the Scriptures was what Dr. Kennedy didn't say. He completely neglected to mention or interact with several key passages which contradicted his thesis.

In many cases, knowing that the teacher is omitting is the most important yellow flag that something is astray. Of course knowing what isn't being said requires a greater grasp of the entirety of Scripture. It is one thing to check out that a few passages used in support of a view are actually found in Scripture (they usually are) and being understood in context (less frequently true). It is quite another to notice the “deafening silence” of telltale omission.

In the age of the Tall Ships, “when boats were made of wood and men of steel,” during particularly dangerous storms a net was sometimes stretched above the rails along each side of the ship. The net served to strain out sailors as waves swept over the deck keeping them on board the vessel. Although we want to avoid giving undo priority to related passages in such a way that they overrule the immediate context of a passage in view, comparing Scripture with Scripture can serve in a similar way as a tremendous “safety net” to keep us from being swept overboard with an errant interpretation.

Biblical Covenants

Give Heed to the Biblical Covenants

If you compare the Bible to a human being made up of flesh and bones, the skeletal frame which gives the Bible its overall structure and upon which all its teaching hangs (the flesh) is the Biblical Covenants. In other words, all the teachings of the Bible weave in and out of a larger framework made up of formalized statements made by God which are known as covenants. [4]

Have you ever considered why God made covenants? After all, God is not a man that He should lie (Num. 23:19) so isn't a simple statement by Him good enough? Yes, 'tis true. Yet God chose to make a number of very important formal statements with various individuals (e.g., Abraham, David, Phinehas) and groups of individuals (e.g., Israel, the Church). These formal statements are more than mere promises (although a promise is as good as gold from God). They are intended to highlight particularly important themes and actions which God is dedicated to working out as He moves history from creation to consummation. Since these themes are so important, we should pay special attention to them: our interpretation must never contravene God's covenants. To do so is akin to breaking a bone in the body of Scripture. Failure to pay due attention to the Biblical covenants, can only result in a tendency toward interpreting Scripture much like a spiritual jellyfish—an invertebrate with all too-malleable form.

Notice too that I keep referring to these covenants as Biblical covenants. This would not be necessary if it weren't due to a historical movement which has down-played the formal statements which the Bible calls covenants in favor of other inferred “covenants” (of Covenant Theology) which the Scripture nowhere actually refers to as covenants. When imagined covenants which have their basis entirely in man's deductive logic rather than the pages of Holy Writ are allowed to supersede what the Bible itself calls covenants then little good will result.

Understand the Original Context and Audience

Assume we do try to be true Bereans including improving our understanding of the Old Testament and paying attention to the rules of interpretation and covenants. What else do we need to consider? Well, the best way to read the Old Testament is to read it while pretending we don't have the New Testament. Say WHAT?! No, really! Practice putting yourself into the shoes of the original recipients of the Old Testament. They did not have the New Testament, yet God's Word was still said to be pure and holy (Ps. 119:40; Pr. 30:5). Yes, they lacked the insights arrived at from the progressive revelation given in the New Testament, but if we read the Old Testament in this way we will also guard against the error of reading the New Testament back into the Old Testament in places it doesn't belong.

I remember the first time as a Christian I heard some of the many clever statements concerning how the two testaments interrelate. For example: “the New Testament is in the Old concealed and the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” The unfortunate reality with many of these statements is that although there is a kernel of truth to be found there, they also embody significant error, if not in what they explicitly say but in what they infer. Too frequently among today's Christians we hold the troublesome view that the Old Testament cannot be understood apart from the new Testament.

But consider what would have been your choice if you had been born B.C. instead of A.D.? The original readers of the Old Testament had no choice in this matter. God communicated to them what He intended to reveal. Being the originator of language and adept at its use, we can count on the simple meaning of the Old Testament to be accessible to those who read the text plainly. Even without access to the New Testament: the Old Testament can stand on its own two feet. Again, this comes down to an issue of God's character and His purpose in giving the Old Testament. After all, there were long stretches of history during which people were still accountable for faith and obedience—all without the aid of New Testament insight. If the New Testament is required to understand the Old—as some teachers seem to suggest—then what is to be said about those who lived prior to completion of the New Testament? What is to be said in light of God's blessing or condemnation of this population based on an adequate understanding of what He had already revealed—before having the New Testament? More than that, how could it have been acceptable for Jesus to chide His generation for failing to recognize Him if the only written Word of God available to them was the Old Testament? Clearly, the body of writings making up the Old Testament was declared by our Lord Himself to be sufficient to this task (Mat. 22:29; Mark 12:26; John 5:39,46).

To aid us in this task, we may consider the following list of 40 reasons to avoid reinterpreting the Old Testament by the New Testament [5] suggested by Dr. Paul Henebury.

  1. Neither Testament instructs us to reinterpret the OT by the NT. Hence, we venture into uncertain waters when we allow this.
  2. It would mean no one could correctly interpret the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.
  3. It forces the NT into saying things it never explicitly says (e.g. that the Church is “the New Israel” or the seventh day Sabbath is now the first day “Christian Sabbath.”)
  4. It forces the OT into saying things it really does not mean (e.g. Ezekiel 43:1-7, 10-12).
  5. It would require the Lord Jesus to have used a brand new set of hermeneutical rules in, e.g., Lk. 24:44; rules not accessible until the arrival of the entire NT. These would have to include rules for each “genre”, which would not have been apparent to anyone interpreting the OT on its own terms.
  6. If the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT then what it says on its own account cannot be trusted, as it could well be a “type” to be reinterpreted by the NT.
  7. Thus, it would mean the seeming clear predictions about the Coming One in the OT could not be relied upon to present anything but a typological/symbolic picture which would need deciphering by the NT. The most clearly expressed promises of God in the OT (e.g. Jer. 33:15-26; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14:16-21) would be vulnerable to being eventually turned into types and shadows.
  8. It would excuse anyone (e.g. the scribes in Jn. 5:35f.) for not accepting Jesus’ claims based on OT prophecies—since those prophecies required the NT to reinterpret them.
  9. Any rejection of this, with a corresponding assertion that the OT prophecies about Christ did mean what they said, would create the strange hermeneutical paradox of finding clear, plain-sense testimony to Christ in the OT while claiming the OT cannot be interpreted without the NT.
  10. The divining of these OT types and shadows is no easy task, especially as the NT does not provide any specific help on the matter.
  11. Thus, this approach pulls a typological shroud over the OT, denying its Author the credit of meaning what He says and saying what He means (e.g. what does one make of the specificity of Jer. 33:14-26 or Zeph. 3?).
  12. If the Author of the OT does not mean what He appears to say, but is in reality speaking in types and shadows which He will apparently reveal later, what assurance is there that He is not still speaking in types and shadows in the NT? Especially is this problem intensified because many places in the NT are said to be types and shadows still (e.g. the Temple in 2 Thess. 2 and Rev. 11).
  13. It imposes a “unity” on the Bible which is symbolic and metaphorical only. Hence taking the Bible in a normal, plain-sense (the sense scholars advocating this view take for granted their readers will adopt with them, which we would identify as “literal”) would destroy any unity between the Testaments.
  14. However, a high degree of unity can be achieved by linking together the OT and NT literature in a plain-sense, even though every question the interpreter may have will not be answered. Hence, this position that the NT must reinterpret the OT ignores or rejects the fact that, taken literally (in the sense defined above) the OT makes good sense.
  15. Saying the types and shadows in the OT (which supposedly include the land given to Israel, the throne in Jerusalem, the temple of Ezekiel, etc.), are given their proper concrete meanings by the NT implies neither the believer nor the unbeliever can comprehend God’s promises solely from the OT.
  16. Thus, no unbeliever could be accused of unbelief so long as they only possessed the OT, since the apparatus for belief (the NT) was not within their grasp.
  17. This all makes mincemeat of any claim for the perspicuity of Scripture. At the very least it makes this an attribute possessed only by the NT.
  18. Thus, the OT is deprived of its own hermeneutical integrity. This would render warnings such as that found in Proverbs 30:5-6 pointless.
  19. A corollary to this is that the authority of the OT to speak in its own voice is undermined.
  20. In consequence of the above the status of the OT as “Word of God” would be logically inferior to the status of the NT. The result is that the NT (which refers to the OT as the “Word of God”) is more inspired than the OT, producing the unwelcome outcome of two levels of inspiration.
  21. It devalues the OT as its own witness to God and His Plans. For example, if the promises given to ethnic Israel of land, throne, temple, etc. are somehow “fulfilled” in Jesus and the Church, what was the point of speaking about them so pointedly? Cramming everything into Christ not only destroys the clarity and unity of Scripture in the ways already mentioned, it reduces the biblical covenants down to the debated promise of Genesis 3:15. The [true] expansion seen in the covenants (with all their categorical statements) is deflated into a single soundbite of “the Promised Seed-Redeemer has now come and all is fulfilled in Him.” This casts aspersions on God as a communicator and as a covenant-Maker, since there was absolutely no need for God to say many of the things He said in the OT, let alone bind himself by oaths to fulfill them (a la Jer. 31 & 33).
  22. It forces one to adopt a “promise-fulfillment” scheme between the Testaments, ignoring the fact that the OT possesses no such promise scheme, but rather a more relational “covenant-blessing” scheme.
  23. It effectively shoves aside the hermeneutical import of the inspired intertextual usage of an earlier OT text by later OT writers (e.g. earlier covenants cited in Psa. 89:33-37; 105:6-12; 106:30-31: 132:11-12; Jer. 33:17-18, 20-22, 25-26; Ezek. 37:14, 21-26). God is always taken at face value (e.g. 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 9:2, 13). This sets up an expectation that covenant commitments will find “fulfillment” in expected ways, certainly not in completely unforeseeable ones.
  24. It forces clear descriptive language into an unnecessary semantic mold (e.g. Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 14). A classic example being Ezekiel’s Temple in Ezek. 40ff. According to this view it is not a physical temple even though a physical temple is clearly described.
  25. It impels a simplistic and overly dependent reliance on the confused and confusing genre labeled “apocalyptic”—a genre about which there is no scholarly definitional consensus.
  26. It would make the specific wording of the covenant oaths, which God took for man’s benefit, misleading and hence unreliable as a witness to God’s intentions. This sets a poor precedent for people making covenants and not sticking to what they actually promise to do (e.g. Jer. 34:18; cf. 33:15ff. and 35:13-16). This encourages theological nominalism, wherein God’s oath can be altered just because He says it can.
  27. Since interpreters in the OT (Psa. 105:6-12); NT (Acts 1:6); and the intertestamental period (e.g. Tobit 14:4-7) took the covenant promises at face value (i.e. to correspond precisely to the people and things they explicitly refer to), this would mean God’s testimony to Himself and His works in those promises, which God knew would be interpreted that way, was calculated to deceive the saints. Hence, a “pious transformation” of OT covenant terms through certain interpretations of NT texts backfires.
  28. The character of any being, be it man or angel, but especially God, is bound to the words agreed to in a covenant (cf. Jer. 33:14, 24-26; 34:18). This being so, it would mean that God could not make such covenants and then not perform them in a way totally foreign to the plain wording of the oaths He took; at least not without it testifying against His own holy veracious character. Hence, not even God could “expand” His promises in such a fashion that would lead literally thousands of saints to be misled by His oaths.
  29. A God who would “expand” His promises in such an unanticipated way could never be trusted not to “transform” His promises to us in the Gospel. Thus, there might be a difference between the Gospel message as we preach it (relying on the face value language of the NT) and God’s real intentions when He eventually “fulfills” the promises in the Gospel. Since it is thought that He did so in the past, it is conceivable that He might do so again in the future. Perhaps the promises to the Church will be “fulfilled” in totally unexpected ways with a people other than the Church?
  30. Exegetically it would entail taking passages in both Testaments literally and non-literally at the same time (e.g. Isa. 9:6-7; 49:6; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9; Lk. 1:31-33; Rev. 7).
  31. Exegetically it would also impose structural discontinuities into prophetic books (e.g. God’s glory departs a literal temple by the east gate in Ezekiel 10, but apparently returns to a spiritual temple through a spiritual east gate in Ezekiel 43!).
  32. In addition, it makes the Creator of language the greatest rambler in all literature. Why did God not just tell the prophet, “When the Messiah comes He will be the Temple and all those in Him will be called the Temple”? That would have saved thousands of misleading words at the end of Ezekiel.
  33. It ignores the life-setting of the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 in the context of their already having had forty days teaching about the very thing they asked about (the kingdom—see Acts 1:3). This reflects badly on the clarity of Risen Lord’s teaching about the kingdom. But the tenacity with which these disciples still clung to literal fulfillments would also prove the validity of #’s 23, 26, 27, 28 & 32 above.
  34. This resistance to the clear expectation of the disciples also ignores the question of the disciples, which was about the timing of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, not its nature.
  35. It turns the admonition to “keep” the words of the prophecy in Revelation 1:3 into an absurdity, for how many people can “keep” what they are uncertain is being “revealed”?
  36. It makes the unwarranted assumption that there can only be one people of God. Since the OT speaks of Israel and the nations (e.g. Zech. 14:16f.); Paul speaks of Israel and the Church (e.g. Rom. 11:25, 28; Gal. 6:16; 1 Cor. 10:32; cf. Acts 26:7), and the Book of Revelation speaks of Israel separated from the nations (Rev. 7), and those in New Jerusalem distinguished from “the kings of the earth” (Rev. 21:9-22:5), it seems precarious to place every saved person from all ages into the Church.
  37. In reality what happens is the theological presuppositions of the interpreter which are read into the NT text and then back into the OT. There is a corresponding breakdown between what the biblical text says and what they are assumed to mean. Thus, it is the interpretation of the reader and not the wording of the biblical text which is often the authority for what the Bible is allowed to teach.
  38. This view also results in pitting NT authors against themselves. E.g. if “spiritual resurrection” is read into Jn. 5:25 on the rather flimsy basis of an allusion to Dan. 12:1-2, that interpretation can then be foisted on Rev. 20:4-6 to make John refer to a spiritual resurrection in that place too. Again, if Jesus is said to refer to His physical body as “this temple” in Jn.2:19 then he is not allowed to refer to a physical temple building in Rev. 11:1-2. This looks like what might be called “textual preferencing.”
  39. This view, which teaches a God who prevaricates in the promises and covenants He makes, also tempts its adherents to adopt equivocation themselves when they are asked to expound OT covenantal language in its original context. It often tempts them to avoid specific OT passages whose particulars are hard to interpret in light of their supposed fulfillment in the NT. It also makes one over sensitive to words like “literal” and “replacement,” even though these words are used freely when not discussing matters germane to this subject.
  40. Finally, there is no critical awareness of many of the problems enumerated above because that awareness is provided by the OT texts and the specific wording of those texts, which, of course, are not allowed a voice on par with what the NT text is assumed to mean. Only verses which preserve the desired theological picture are allowed to mean what they say. Hence a vicious circle is created of the NT reinterpreting the Old. This is a hermeneutical circle which ought not to be presupposed.


The above principles should help all of us to become better able to determine which of various conflicting interpretations offered by teachers most closely represents the full truth of God's Word. It will require work, but since when has true Christian discipleship been a walk in the park?


[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come : A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 44.

[2] “Changing the rules in the middle of the game can make anyone a winner.”—Robert Thomas

[3] Alva J. McClain, Daniel's Prophecy of the 70 Weeks (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1969), p. 3.

[4] There are also promises and simple statements of fact, all of which are equally true if their source is found in God.

[5] http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2012/01/13/forty-reasons-for-not-reinterpreting-the-old-testament-by-the-new-the-first-twenty/ and http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/forty-reasons-for-not-reinterpreting-the-old-testament-by-the-new-the-last-twenty/ accessed [20120222].