Thursday, August 11, 2011

How to Read the Holy Scriptures: 25 Theses

I've recently read a number of books on how to interpret the Scriptures, each of which is useful for various reasons, but each of which I was disappointed with for various reasons. None of what follows is original but is a compilation of what I consider to be helpful advice given in books and articles. If I have erred, I ask for correction. If I have left something out please let me know.

1. The Scriptures were written to the church. The Scriptures were not written as an evangelism tract but were written for believers. The unbeliever should not expect to be able to fully understand the Scriptures and believers should not expect unbelievers to understand or accept the teachings of the Scriptures.

2. The Divine Service is the natural habitat for the Holy Scriptures. The Divine Service is where those who have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gather to receive Christ's body and blood and have their sins forgiven. A lion may be dissected in a laboratory and something may be learned about it but what a lion is can only be fully known in its natural habitat. Removing the Scriptures from their natural habitat makes them appear to be tame. In their natural habitat the Scriptures are dangerous.

3. The historic liturgy provides the proper grid and emphasis for understanding the Holy Scriptures. The liturgy is Trinitarian but focused on Christ. The liturgy is all about Jesus and what He did and does. The Scriptures are all about Jesus and what He did and does.

4. The Nicene Creed which is found within the historic liturgy is a summary of the Apostolic Gospel and provides the proper lens through which to read and understand the Scriptures. The Nicene Creed is Trinitarian and focused upon the objective acts of Jesus and who He is.

5. Reading the Scriptures outside of the public gathering of the church is beneficial if it is informed by the previous theses and centered upon Christ.

6. Reading the Bible outside of the public gathering of the church is detrimental if it is not Christocentric and not informed by the liturgy and the historic faith. If Bible study is centered upon moralism or secret codes, personal Bible study will lead you away from Christ and His church. I do not know of many who have more of the Bible memorized than Harold Camping but he does not know how to interpret it and his Bible study has led him away from the Christian faith. The Scriptures were not given to be studied in a closet by individuals but to the church as a whole.

7. It is beneficial to read the Scriptures as part of Matins or Vespers. Even though you may be the only one in the room, you can join in the prayers of the church that are being offered throughout the world. The Treasury of Daily Prayer and Brotherhood Prayer Book both provide resources for the daily offices. The prayers will also help guide you in your interpretation of the Scriptures.

8. The Gospels provide the foundational texts for properly understanding the rest of the Scriptures. Reading straight through from Genesis to Revelation can often cause a person to get bogged down in details and miss Jesus. Many start enthusiastically and give up before they even make it out of Genesis. The Treasury of Daily Prayer has a helpful reading plan based on the liturgical year. Another option is to read one chapter from the Gospels each day which would take the reader through the Gospels four times each year.

9. The Scriptures should be interpreted according to their canonical order. The Gospel of Matthew provides the proper interpretive lens for reading the rest of the Gospels. The Gospels provide the proper interpretive lens for reading the rest of the New Testament. The New Testament provides the proper interpretive lens for reading the Old Testament.

10. No disputed book of the Bible should be used by itself to arrive at a doctrinal position. All disputed books should be interpreted through the lens of the undisputed books. The disputed books (or sections) of the Old Testament are: Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus [aka Sirach], Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Old Greek version of Esther, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Azariah, the Song of the Three Holy Children, and the Prayer of Manasseh. The disputed New Testament books are Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, the Apocalypse of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache.

11. The emphasis of Scriptural inperetation should be on what Christ does for you. The Bible as a whole is about what Christ does for us but our sinful nature ignores that and wants us to believe that the Bible is all about what we need to do for Jesus.

12. The Law is not the Gospel.

13. The Law contains promises of good things but those promises are contingent upon your obedience to the Law.

14. You don't obey the Law so you don't receive the good things.

15. You are not reading the Law correctly if you think you are keeping it. Trying hard doesn't cut it. Getting better is not acceptable. The Law demands absolute obedience. The Law doesn't say "Try your best." The Law says "Do this and you will live, don't do this and you are damned."

16. The Law does not make anyone better. The Law is good and should be used and tells us how God would have us live but the Law itself does not keep us from doing sinful things. The Law by itself will only result in our sinful nature becoming more rebellious and engage in more sin.

17. The Gospel is the declaration of what Jesus does for you. The Gospel says you are forgiven.

18. Generally commands are Law. However, phrases such as "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved," "be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins," and "Take, eat; this is my body...Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the testament, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" are actually Gospel. If you were to walk up to a starving man, hand him a sandwich, and say "eat this" it could hardly be considered a law that you are giving the starving man. When we receive the forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the Gospel, baptism, and the Lord's Supper we are not working but receiving.

19. What the Scriptures speak of as gifts should not be interpreted as works.

20. When the Scriptures make declarations we should not automatically interpret them as imperatives. Describing is no the same as commanding. Sometimes the Scriptures describe sinful activities. Sometimes they describe a unique situation. There is no command to kill Christians, be blinded by Jesus, and then have our vision restored. Sometimes what they present is something to believed as an article of faith. God says I am holy therefore I am holy regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. It doesn't matter if I feel holy, God says I am. We should not concern ourselves with being able to "experience" what God says we are but instead cling to His promises by faith.

21. Revelation is often contrary to reason. Holy Scripture is to believed because it has received the imprimatur of Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. God dying for your sins is not reasonable and so you should not expect the Holy Scriptures to measure up to your own notions of reasonableness or decency. If something that the Scriptures say seems unreasonable, it is unreasonable to explain it away or deny the plain teaching since Christianity is grounded upon the unreasonable belief that God would die for you.

22. Is means is. Jesus really is the door. All other doors only mimic what he really does. When Jesus said, "This is my body" He really meant it. When He said, "This is my blood" He really meant it. When the Scriptures speak of baptism being "for the forgiveness of sins" they really mean that too. Throughout most of church history most Christians believed that Jesus literally meant these things and even today most Christians do. But unfortunately, many Protestants deny these things because they are gnostics. Matter matters to God.

23. Jesus and the Apostles are able to communicate what they want to communicate. We should not twist or make excuses for the statements made in the Scriptures. If our theology does not allow us to say what the Scriptures plainly say then there is something wrong with our theology. If we can be brought up on heresy charges for repeating what the Scriptures say then our church body is guilty of heresy.

24. The church fathers are better guides than modern critical commentators. The church fathers are not infallible but they did believe that the Scriptures are all about Jesus and lived in closer proximity to the time of the Apostles. Many of them spoke the same language as the Apostles did on a regular basis. Some critics treat the church fathers as if they were immature and superstitious but only because the critics are unbelieving rationalists. The church fathers believed what the plain words of Scripture say about baptism and the Lord's Supper because their interpretive skills were not impaired by the enlightenment.

25. Allegorical interpretation is legitimate if it finds Christ in the passage. Throughout the Gospels and New Testament Epistles we find instances where passages from the Old Testament are understood as prophecies about Christ. Matthew takes Hosea 11:1 and reads it as a prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus. When Hosea 11:1 is read literally, it seems to be speaking of God leading the Israelites out of Egypt in the past. But Matthew is showing us that Jesus is the new Israel--He is Israel reduced to one. Matthew is also showing us that all of the Scriptures are about Jesus--even those that don't appear to be. The early church fathers interpreted the Scriptures in the same way. Occasionally one of the church fathers will provide a questionable interpretation of an Old Testament passage that seems to drift too far into allegory and there is a danger if we arbitrarily allegorize. But we are on the right path when we find Christ in the passage since Jesus said that all of the Scriptures are about Him. We end up with the wrong interpretation if we insist on a Christless literalistic interpretation.

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