Some Thoughts on Interpretation

What sort of rules are good for interpretation? It seems the best interpretation is the one that captures the author’s intended meaning. With Scripture, we who believe that it is God’s word, as well as human writing, must come to the text with the goal of finding the intention of two authors. Now, most evangelical Christians like me usually take both the human author and God to mean the same thing by a passage. Certainly, there are folks who emphasize the humanness of the Scripture to the detriment of its divine origin, which leads to many speculations about the text without restraint as to any consideration that it is true.

On the other hand, there are those who do the opposite, seeing the Bible as one book full of the sayings of God and gloss over the literary styles and differences between human authors. In centuries past, this led to extreme allegorizing of the Scriptures, so much so that the plain, surface meaning of the text was unimportant.

The best interpretations come from the best view of the Scriptures. Namely, that it is a book both human and divine in origin. God chose what would be written, so that we can be assured that it is trustworthy, but the men who wrote it still wrote according to their own perspective, style, and culture.

Of the second mistake above, that of removing the human element, I have seen a different sort of expression. As I have interacted with the Jehovah’s Witnesses lately, I’ve found that their literature (and therefore, they themselves) makes a mistake in interpretation that could be seen as a different kind of over-emphasis on the divine element of Scripture. As I said, this view often leads to treating the whole Bible as if it were merely a book of the sayings of God, and not full of different types of literature, such as narrative, poetic, apocalyptic, etc.

This has brought to mind a minor tension I didn’t see before on two rules of interpretation that I hold to be true, both having to do with reading in context.

1. The interpretation of a single verse must make sense in the immediate context, i.e., the paragraph and book it’s found in.

2. Scripture interprets Scripture, we should take the whole Bible into account when interpreting a passage. Or, the whole Bible is also a context.

The first rule is designed, I think, to prevent our picking and choosing verses in isolation and building theologies on them. The second, I believe, helps us to address larger, more complicated issues, such as the Bible’s view on hell, predestination, the Trinity, the kingdom of God, grace, faith and works, and so on.

The tension I see comes from the question of which of these rules should have priority. Should we first consider what all of the disparate verses that, say, contain a particular Greek word say? Or, should we first consider each verse in its own paragraph and chapter before applying it to a greater issue? Having considered my discussions with the JWs, I think that the first rule ought to have precedence over the second, and here’s why.

The reader of the Scriptures in the first century, or earlier, with the OT, had limited access to them, and at times only had some of the books. As they read, only the immediate context would be apparent to them. Indeed, though we have the whole Bible, if we read a whole book in it, we are best able to access the immediate context, not the whole of Scripture. Also, it would only make sense in the writing of the Bible that, if a context is needed to understand a passage, then the author of that passage would supply the needed context.

A perfect example of how the Jehovah’s Witnesses miss this rule is found in their understanding of why the Watchtower is God’s organization. Two of the “rules” that show this for them are that they do not engage in war and that they preach “the kingdom”. What verses do they use?

Matthew 6:10 “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”

This is part of the Lord’s prayer, or Jesus’ model prayer that he gives for us to know how to pray. This verse is used by the JWs to say several things. They say it shows that they are the only true religion because they are the only ones preaching God’s kingdom. They also use it to show that there is a ruling class in heaven that will rule over the earth. Now, did you see all of that in this verse when you read it just now? Does looking at the context of the verses around it help? Unfortunately for the Jehovah’s Witness, there really isn’t. While there are some themes that run through the whole of the sermon on the mount, one of them isn’t determining who God’s organization is by means of certain rules. The immediate context is prayer. Jesus isn’t talking about preaching here. He’s talking about how we should pray. In fact, none of the sermon on the mount concerns how we should “preach”. Is there anything in the verse about a ruling class of 144,000 in heaven exercising authority over those on earth? No. Does anything in the immediate context tell us that this is how we should interpret the passage? No. In fact, if I wanted to grant their belief in a special group in heaven, separate from those on earth, I could argue from this verse that “as it is in heaven” means that everything true of those in heaven is true of those on earth, which JWs flatly reject.

What about their stance on war? What passage do they use?

John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The argument goes that in many wars, fellow believers kill each other, which is a violation of the command to love one another. In this case, both the immediate context and the whole Bible can be brought to bear on the issue, but for my purposes here, we’ll just look at the passage itself. Does the passage mention war? Military? Killing? None of these. The application has nothing at all to do with the immediate context. One thing we do have here that was lacking in the first example is an indication of how to know if someone is a disciple. He loves his fellow disciples. Is there anything in the verses surrounding these to give us the interpretation of the Watchtower? These verses come between a prediction of Judas betrayal and a prediction of Peter’s denial. The verses are found in a narrative of a discourse between Jesus and His disciples. Really, nothing more is said on this subject here in this passage, so we cannot build too much into what is said beyond the surface statement “love one another”. The most I suppose one could say is that Jesus is reiterating His statement that all of the commandments are summed up in loving God and loving people. This is also in the context of His leaving, so it could be seen that, while He has loved them during His time with them, they will have to love one another and support each other in His absence. One thing that is not mentioned at all is war.

For Jesus’ views on military service, you should probably go to His interactions with military men. You’ll notice that He never condemns their service and even commands one to be “content with your pay”, so as not to extort money from helpless people. This certainly implies that He did not consider what he did for his “pay” to be sin.