Letting the Context Drive your Interpretation

My last post before this blog took about an 8-year break was about interpretation, or, to use the smart-sounding word, hermeneutics. It was inspired by some conversations with Jehovah’s witnesses and dealing with their flawed interpretive methods.

Recent interactions I’ve had have brought these thoughts to mind again. You may have noticed that the Trinity has been my area of focus lately, so that is what I write about, but what I’m going to address in this post really has application to anything the Scriptures spend time addressing.

We come to the Bible for many reasons, for understanding God better, for comfort, for discipline in spiritual matters, for practical wisdom, the list goes on. I’m going to suggest that one purpose must stand above any of these. These are good things to come to Scripture for, but if they are our main purpose, we are likely to come away with a distorted view of what it is saying. The one thing that should take precedence over these is simple.

  • What is the writer trying to communicate?

I am here referring to the human writer. Scripture is God-breathed, and so is infallible in what it says, but we cannot simply disregard the writer’s intent. Sometimes, this intent is right on the surface. Other times it can be more difficult to ascertain, but by simply asking this question, we can often short-circuit our tendency to introduce our own prejudices and agenda into the text.

I believe the best way to interpret rightly is try our best to walk through a text methodically, allowing it to explain itself primarily. Now, we shouldn’t just try to empty our minds of other things we know, but we should limit what instructs our interpretation to what we know would instruct the writer. This is where biblical theology is shown to take precedence over systematic theology. Systematic theology is built very carefully on what is found in Scripture. It should not sit over the text dictating what it can or cannot mean.

I have had some conversations with some Unitarians online that have brought these considerations to the fore. I won’t use full names here, as this comes from conversations in a private group and these are not professional apologists for their view.

A Conversation with D and R

In response to some questions about what I believed considering that Jesus is described with human attributes, I had offered a general explanation Jesus is described in Scripture with both human and divine attributes, and as having two natures. In talking about what I mean by having two natures, I said that it can be understood as Jesus having all of the human attributes and all of the divine attributes.

D asked several questions. One was where Scripture says He has all divine attributes, the other was for am explanation of how He could have seemingly contradictory attributes, such as being impassible yet suffering, or all knowing yet not know when He will return.

In answer to the first question, I offered a basic exegesis of Philippians 2:3-11:

3 Do nothing according to selfish ambition or according to empty conceit, but in humility considering one another better than yourselves, 4 each of you not looking out for your own interests, but also each of you for the interests of others.

5 Think this in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

6 who, existing in the form of God,

did not consider being equal with God something to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself

by taking the form of a slave,

by becoming in the likeness of people.

And being found in appearance like a man,

8 he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to the point of death,

that is, death on a cross.

9 Therefore also God exalted him

and graciously granted him the name above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bow,

of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth,

11 and every tongue confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

I explained that the passage, in teaching humility, uses Jesus as an example of lowering himself because He began “in the form of God”, but took on the “form of a slave”, and became “in human likeness”. He did not consider His equality with God something to be grasped but humbled Himself by soing this. I further explained that the parallel between “form of God” and “form of a slave” show that he had the nature of God and took on human nature. This was due to the fact that we know from the gospels (prior revelation) that Jesus truly was human. So the language of appearance attached to His humanity, whatever else it is communicating is not saying He was only apparently, symbolically, or representationally human. Jesus is human, through and through. Due to the parallel language, then, we can conclude that Jesus was God, through and through.

This exegesis was offered as an example of how Scripture teaches the two natures of Christ, and having two natures was offered as a way of explaining how Jesus could have seemingly contradictory attributes. The nature of something is what gives it its attributes. Jesus was already God and took on human nature, with all of its attributes.

Now, D never responded to this exegesis, so I won’t discuss his answers further. On the other hand, another person, R, did offer an alternative interpretation, and that is what I will be interacting with to show an example of how not to fall into the trap of letting your systematic theology override your interpretation of a text.

R offered an alternative interpretation based on the fact that “existing” is a present participle. From that, he argued that we could see this as a statement about how Jesus is now, not how He was in the past. He argued that the “form” is outer appearance and that Jesus has that now, as regards His authority and power, but had to be obedient to get there. This allows him to avoid the text really affirming the preexistence and deity of Christ, and hold that this text is compatible with Unitarianism.

I’m not a Greek grammarian, so I can’t comment on whether this is grammatically possible in the Greek, but it seems at least grammatically possible to read it that way in the English. I offered some of the answer I will go over here, but this grammatical possibility was enough for him to continue holding that interpretation.

I did respond that his reinterpretation of the one present participle does not work with the others in the text. In verses 6-8, there are several present participles, all linked with past-tense verbs that are related. “Existing” is the same. Yet, for the Unitarian interpretation, one of these has to be taken as actually present, while all of the other present participles are still describing what has happened in the past.

So, how do we decide between these interpretations? I think the answer lies in the text itself. Which one is actually drawn from the text? My original interpretation drew from the parallels in the text to show that Jesus was God, and that He took on humanity. R said we could take the first present participle as actually referring to the present result of everything that comes after. But where does the text tell us to do this?

The mere fact that we could tease the grammar to mean something does not mean that is what the author meant. The best way to see this is to consider an interpretation as it would be presented positively by either side. The Trinitarian interpretation says all of the present participles are the same, describing events that happened in the past, and they are all either explained by, or help explain, the past-tense verbs they are connected to. The Trinitarian interpretation says that the parallels around “form” show that the same thing is meant throughout the passage, that Jesus has the outer appearance that comes from a true, inner reality. Jesus appeared as a man because He actually was a man. Jesus existed in the form of God because He actually was God. The present participle is used at the start about Jesus’ deity because it had no beginning. Rather, it is the starting condition before Jesus emptied Himself and began His human life to redeem us. Also, the Trinitarian interpretation gives a consistent interpretation of how this is all meant to teach humility. Jesus was equal with God because that was His nature, but He humbled Himself below what was His rightful place.

Now, the Unitarian interpretation I was offered says that we should see the “appearance” language as real when it comes to Jesus’ humanity, but only figurative when it comes to Jesus’ Godhood. Also, we can pick one of the present participles as referring to the present day with respect to Jesus’ Godhood, but all the others refer to the past with respect to his human mission. We can inconsistently interpret these things even though the text never actually tells us to do so. Finally, the Unitarian interpretation says that Jesus’ example of humility was that He obeyed God, not that He left His high estate, but the text itself defines that humility from the reference point of “equality with God”. If Jesus was never equal with God, there really is no sense in which defining humility this way gives us any example we should follow. The whole point of the text is to teach us humility with each other, our equals. Jesus is then our example by being humble before His equal, God, as the text explicitly states. The Unitarian view of the text does not line up in the least with the main point of the text.

So, what we have is a difference between one view that consistently walks through the text and affirms everything it affirms, and another that has to interpret parallel phrasing and grammar differently without any reason to in the text. The only reason to follow that kind of interpretive track is to prop up or protect one’s theology.

Consider this when looking at any tough text. If a text is difficult for your position, or it’s one that people you disagree with will use to argue against you. Ask yourself, who is walking through the text consistently, and who is having to jump around, by either bringing in texts that are not in the context or by switching interpretive methods or rules partway through the text. This isn’t all there is to good interpretation, but I hope it helps.