Principles of Biblical Interpretation

Principles of Biblical Interpretation*: Part I. The Continuing Quest for Truth

The commission of the Holy Spirit to guide the church into all truth is as valid today as it was in apostolic times. It is our favored privilege and sacred duty to accord Him the opportunity to perform for us in this generation His ap­pointed task of leading men onward in the quest for a more perfect understanding of the character, will, and ways of the Infinite One as set forth in His Holy Word.

Associate Editor. Review and Herald

* Taken from Problems in Bible Translation, Review and Herald Publishing Association.

THE commission of the Holy Spirit to guide the church into all truth is as valid today as it was in apostolic times. It is our favored privilege and sacred duty to accord Him the opportunity to perform for us in this generation His ap­pointed task of leading men onward in the quest for a more perfect understanding of the character, will, and ways of the Infinite One as set forth in His Holy Word. God calls today for consecrated men to follow on in the footsteps of Habakkuk, Daniel, John, and Paul, hearts aglow with ardent longing for an ever-clearer concept of truth that they may cooperate more effectively with the agencies of heaven in the proclama­tion of the message ordained for earth's crisis hour. This summons calls, first, for the most careful review of known truth, and second, for consecrated expeditions of discovery into the vast unexplored regions of revelation that lie beyond.

The foundations of the temple of truth rest firm and immovable, its pillars rise in majesty. Shall we cease from our labors to gaze in pride and satisfaction upon the beauty of an unfinished structure? God for­bid! Truth—"present truth" in particular —is not static, for the instant it ceases to grow it begins to wither and die. The church has ever been in danger of pro­claiming itself rich and increased in spir­itual goods, oblivious to the need of keep­ing pace with the ever-advancing light God would impart to it. Neglect to go forward with advancing light has left in darkness more than one reformatory movement that set forth with the blazing torch of truth in its hands. Its spiritual life gradually deteri­orated into a form of godliness without the power thereof, and this was accom­panied by a tendency to become conserva­tive, to discourage further investigation of the Scriptures, and to avoid discussion. Aware of this danger, Seventh-day Adventists have refrained from freezing the meas­ure of truth Heaven has entrusted to them into the rigid shape of a church creed, im­plying infallibility and finality. As a people we are called individually to be students of the Word of God, and as such to move for­ward to receive the increased and ever-in­creasing light He desires to impart to us. Every great advance of the gospel in ages past has been preceded and ushered in by the most earnest study of the Scriptures. Darkness inevitably flees in the face of ad­vancing light; nothing so effectively dispels darkness as the admission of light. If, in the past, a limited measure of truth has proved effective in setting men free from the king­dom of evil and winning them for the king­dom of heaven, more truth will inevitably effect greater freedom by leading men yet closer to the character and will of the great Author of truth. Inspiration assures us that the most diligent searching of the Word will, in the providence of God, yet prepare the way for that glorious hour of destiny, the loud cry of the third angel. We have much to learn before we are ready to join with the angel of Revelation 18 in setting the earth ablaze with the glorious light of the gospel message for this generation. If we are to proclaim the truth more fully then, it is incumbent upon us to search the Scriptures with increasing diligence now, as we see that day approaching.

Advance in the Knowledge of the Truth

Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of his word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spir­itual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God's word and discourage any further investi­gation of the Scriptures. They become conservative and seek to avoid discussion.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 706; Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 38, 39.

Investigation of every point that has been re­ceived as truth will richly repay the searcher; he will find precious gems. And in closely investigating every jot and tittle which we think is established truth, in comparing scripture with scripture, we may discover errors in our interpretations of Scrip­ture. Christ would have the searcher of His word sink the shaft deeper into the mines of truth. If the search is properly conducted, jewels of inestimable value will be found.—Review and Herald, July 12, 1898.

Let none think that there is no more knowledge for them to gain. The depth of human intellect may be measured; the works of human authors may be mastered; but the highest, deepest, broadest flight of the imagination cannot find out God. There is in­finity beyond all that we can comprehend. We have seen only the glimmering of divine glory and of the infinitude of knowledge and wisdom; we have, as it were, been working on the surface of the mine, when rich golden ore is beneath the surface, to re­ward the one who will dig for it. The shaft must be sunk deeper and yet deeper in the mine, and the result will be glorious treasure. Through a correct faith, divine knowledge will become human knowl­edge.—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 113.

In searching the field and digging for the pre­cious jewels of truth, hidden treasures are discerned. Unexpectedly we find precious ore that is to be gathered and treasured. And the search is to be con­tinued. Hitherto very much of the treasure found has lain near the surface, and was easily obtained. When the search is properly conducted every effort is made to keep a pure understanding and heart. When the mind is kept open and is constantly searching the field of revelation, we shall find rich deposits of truth. Old truths will be revealed in new aspects, and truths will appear which have been overlooked in the search.—MS. 75, 1897; Ministry, June, 1953, p. 26.

There are mines of truth yet to be discovered by the earnest seeker.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 204.

The words of God are the well-springs of life. As you seek unto those living springs, you will, through the Holy Spirit, be brought into commun­ion with Christ. Familiar truths will present them­selves to your mind in a new aspect; texts of Scrip­ture will burst upon you with a new meaning, as a flash of light; you will see the relation of other truths to the work of redemption, and you will know that Christ is leading you; a divine Teacher is at your side.—Mount of Blessings, p. 36.

In every age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that gen­eration. The old truths are all essential; new truth is not independent of the old, but an unfolding of it. It is only as the old truths are understood that we can comprehend the new. . . . He who rejects or neg­lects the new, does not really possess the old. For him it loses its vital power, and becomes but a life­less form.—Christ's Object Lessons, pp. 127, 128.

The Importance of Sound Principles

Sound principles of interpretation con­sciously, conscientiously, and consistently followed are essential to the discovery of Bible truth. The inevitable alternative to personal acceptance of the limitations im­posed by a code of sound principles is to accord every man the dubious privilege of interpreting Scripture as may seem right in his own eyes. In large measure the major doctrinal barricades that divide Christen­dom, as well as minor differences of opin­ion between brethren, are due to the unin­hibited exercise of this privilege. Alto­gether too often Bible study has been con­ducted as if it were a game in which each player considers himself free to make up his own rules as the game progresses, or to play without rules if and when he chooses to do so.

Two pilots of equal experience, provided with identical flight instructions and in control of similar craft equipped with com­parable navigational aids, may be expected to reach the same destination, though it be but a tiny coral atoll lost in the far reaches of the vast Pacific. But those who presume to launch out into the deeper things of God's Word without the requisite naviga­tional aids will inevitably find themselves at sea, bound for an endless assortment of fantastic destinations. Electronic engineers and nuclear physicists must comply with the laws' that operate in their respective fields of research if they would achieve valid results; likewise, those who set out in the pursuit of eternal truth must recog­nize and follow clearly defined principles. Sound principles are our safeguard against exegetical anarchy, our guarantee of the certainty of the things we believe, and our assurance of a united front as we press for­ward in the proclamation of the Advent message to all the world in this generation.

In any field the methods of study are largely determined by the nature and char­acteristics of the subject to be studied and by the qualifications and limitations of those participating in it. The principles by which Scripture is to be studied and ex-plained are implicit, and often explicit, in the Scriptures themselves—that is, clearly illustrated if not specifically stated. The laws of interpretation are thus determined by the Inspired Word itself. They are in­herent in its very form and content. For this reason a statement of principles of in­terpretation requires for its basis a careful study of such matters as the nature, histori­cal background, literary characteristics, languages, and transmission of Holy Writ. The formulation of a code of valid principles of Bible study is thus an objective procedure that must be conducted in ac­cordance with its own inherent principles, and must conform to them. This is neces­sarily true because of the fact that the prin­ciples are themselves a part of the truth whose discovery they are designed to facili­tate. A thorough understanding of the ex­plicit statements of the Bible concerning itself, and of the principles implicit in its structure, is essential to any serious study of the truths revealed in it. Otherwise, vari­ous passages of Scripture are certain to be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Of equal importance, the searcher for truth must bring certain emotional atti­tudes, qualities of mind, and technical skills to the quest for truth. These skills are the various techniques and procedures neces­sary to the gathering, analysis, and organi­zation of evidence, and to reaching con­clusions on the basis of that evidence. Also, man is at best finite and fallible, and must know how to work effectively with others in his quest for truth. Alone, no man is sufficient for these things. The following code of principles therefore considers these essential factors in the discovery of Bible truth as they relate to the research worker, to the Bible as a field for research, to re­search procedures, and to cooperative ef­fort in the quest for truth.

Apply Sound Principles

The truths of the Bible have again become ob­scured by custom, tradition, and false doctrine. The erroneous teachings of popular theology have made thousands upon thousands of skeptics and infidels. There are errors and inconsistencies which many denounce as the teaching of the Bible that are really false interpretations of Scripture, adopted during the ages of papal darkness.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 710.

The most valuable teaching of the Bible is not gained by occasional or disconnected study: Its great system of truth is not so presented as to be dis­cerned by the careless or hasty reader. Many of its treasures lie far beneath the surface, and can be ob­tained only by diligent research and continuous ef­fort. The truths that go to make up a great whole must be searched out and gathered up "here a little and there a little."—Signs of the Times, Sept. 19, 1906.

Some portions of Scripture are, indeed, too plain to be misunderstood; but there are others whose meaning does not lie on the surface, to be seen at a glance; Scripture must be compared with Scripture. There must be careful research and patient reflec­tion. And such study will be richly repaid. As the miner discovers veins of precious metal concealed beneath the surface of the earth, so will he who perseveringly searches the word of God as for hid treasure, find truths of great value which are con­cealed from the view of the careless seeker.—Re­view and Herald, Oct. 9, 1883.

God calls for "a diligent study of the Scriptures, and a most critical examination of the positions which we hold. God would have all the bearings and positions of truth thoroughly and perseveringly searched, with prayer and fasting. Believers are not to rest in suppositions and ill-defined ideas of what constitutes truth."—Counsels to Writers and Edi­tors, p. 40.

We should never allow ourselves to employ argu­ments that are not wholly sound. . . . We should present sound arguments, that will not only silence our opponents, but will bear the closest and most searching scrutiny.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 708.

There are those who do not go deep, who are not Bible students, who will take positions de­cidedly for or against, grasping at apparent evi­dence; yet it may not be truth.—Counsels to Writ­ers and Editors, p. 76.

The Lord would have them [the gems of truth] gathered up and placed in their proper relation.— Review and Herald, Oct. 23, 1894.


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Associate Editor. Review and Herald

January 1962

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