Preaching and Bliblical Interpretation

IT IS important for the minister to recognize his responsibility as an interpreter of the Bible. The average parish minister may not have as much knowledge as the specialist in Biblical studies, but he should have sufficient understanding of the Bible to be able to rightly divide the word of truth. . .

-professor of applied theology, College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

IT IS important for the minister to recognize his responsibility as an interpreter of the Bible. The average parish minister may not have as much knowledge as the specialist in Biblical studies, but he should have sufficient understanding of the Bible to be able to rightly divide the word of truth. And he must realize that he is almost the only source from which the average churchgoer will learn the meaning and the relevance of the Bible. There was a time when most people studied the Bible for themselves. Observation would indicate that this time has largely passed. Even Adventist congregations need more Bible-centered preaching.

The Bible, which the preacher is to explain, interpret, and apply, contains the good news of a Saviour who lived and died, who was resurrected from the dead, who is now our Advocate, and who is coming again. The Bible is an authentic revelation of Cod and Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Bible reveals how man should re late to God. With the aid of the Holy Spirit the preacher has plenty to explain, plenty to interpret, plenty to apply.

Applying Hermeneutics

The science and art of interpreting the Bible, known as hermeneutics, or, by some authors, hermeneutic, is the same for the scholar, the teacher, the layman, and the preacher. The difference lies in the use that is made of the interpreted material.

The scholar may write a book for fellow scholars; the teacher may explain the meaning of the Bible to his students; the layman may hold Bible studies with a friend. But the preacher interprets the Bible in order to persuade people to become Christians and to nurture those who are already Christians.

Let us look at several hermeneutical principles with the purpose of relating them to the peculiar task of the preacher.

"The Bible Only"

There is the sola Scriptura principle "the Bible only." This means that all preaching must be Biblical preaching. I hesitate to use the term expository, because there is so much confusion as to what this term means. The Biblical sermon may take a number of forms. It may analyze a Bible pas sage, using the natural divisions of the passage as the points of the sermon. It may dwell on the theological and behavorial implication of a passage. It may deal with a subject or a human problem, using the Bible as the principal source of information on the subject or the key to the solution of a problem. This principle tells the preacher that he must never forget that the Bible is the Word of God, the standard of faith and practice for the Christian, and the basic source of preaching ideas and materials.

Unity of Scripture

Then, there is the principle of unity of Scripture. This means that the Bible teaches one theology, not a variety of theologies. It means, for example, that there is no basic disagreement be tween the theology of Paul and the theology of James. This unity is predicated on the presupposition that the same Holy Spirit guided all the Bible writers; therefore, despite their individual differences, a fundamental oneness persists.

What does this mean for the preacher? It means that he will understand Biblical theology well enough so that his sermons on Romans will not contradict his sermons on James. In other words, his preaching will unify his listeners' concept of Scripture. This insight will be deepened by an understanding of the place of Christ in Scripture.

When a preacher plans a sermon he should always ask himself the question, "How does the mes sage of this sermon relate to the Biblical message as a whole? Is it supportive or is it irrelevant?" To make this evaluation correctly, the preacher needs to know the teaching of the entire Bible about God, Christ, salvation, man, law, revelation, the future, and any other topics bearing on the relationship between God and man.

Scripture Explains Scripture

The third principle, "let Scripture explain Scripture," comes from the Protestant Reformation. It means that the ultimate criteria in determining the meaning of a portion of Scripture is the testimony of other Biblical pas sages that deal directly or indirectly with the same subject. This principle is a corollary of the idea of unity of Scripture.

What does this imply for the preacher? It tells him that he must do thorough work in comparing his preaching portion with other related Biblical passages. To do this most effectively he should have a basic knowledge of Biblical languages. Whether or not he knows Greek or Hebrew he must know how to use an analytical concordance effectively. He must be willing to scuttle a "brilliant" preaching idea if he discovers it to be out of harmony with the real meaning of the text in the context of parallel or explanatory passages.

Words and Sentences

The fourth principle has to do with proper interpretation of Biblical words and sentences. This principle reminds us of the language gap that must be bridged. The preacher, whether or not he is conversant with Biblical languages, must find ways of determining whether the word or words he is stressing in his sermon carry the idea that the Bible writer intended. For example, the word faith may mean "saving faith" in the highest Christian sense; it may mean "assenting to an idea"; it may refer to faithfulness. As many as six different meanings of faith have been detected in Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

The preacher must also be aware of the importance of sentence study. The meaning of a word is often made clear by its context in the sentence (in the original, of course) in which the word is used.

Ability to evaluate translations and paraphrases is a growing need of every minister as new versions proliferate. This evaluation must be based on sound scholarship, not on prejudices and personal preferences.

Context and Background

This principle has to do with context and historical back ground. Because liberal scholars talk about context and historical background, some conservatives have grown skeptical of the whole concept. The fact that liberals may give undue stress to this principle makes it all the more important that conservatives understand its proper use.

The preacher must relate his preaching passage to the literary unit in which the passage is found. He must be aware of the author, the circumstances of writing, the time and place of writing, and the reason for writing. This information may not be made obvious in the sermon, but it needs to be part of the preacher's equipment as he prepares his sermon. At the same time, this knowledge must not be interpreted as reducing the Scriptures to the same level as man-made literature. The Scripture writers maintained their individuality and wrote in the context of their time, but they were God's pen men.

Horrible blunders have been made by preachers who neglected to acquaint themselves with the contextual and historical back ground both of the Bible and of the writings of Ellen White. As preachers, we owe it to our listeners and to God to be reverently meticulous in our interpretation of God's Word.

Interpret Literally

Another important hermeneutical principle is that the message of the Bible must be interpreted literally unless it is obviously figurative. Many a preacher has succumbed to the temptation to depend too much on allegory. One of the accomplishments of the Protestant Reformation was the shattering of the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation that had been popular for centuries.

The preacher has the right to draw lessons from Biblical pas sages. He may freely say, "This text suggests " or, "This passage may be applied " But when he says, "This text means ---" he had better stay close to the literal meaning intended by the writer. Deeper meanings may be suggested by the text, but to be authentic they must have the clear support of other inspired writers.

The interpretation of figurative expressions such as the symbols of prophecy presents difficult problems. Here, again, the safest procedure is to look for a clear statement from another inspired author. Preachers must exercise unusual care that they do not mislead their listeners by fanciful and unsupported interpretations. Disillusioned laymen may lose their faith if they discover that their ministers do not know whereof they speak in the area of prophetic interpretation.

The literal-figurative principle also warns against the demythologizing methodology of the Bultmann school. This method of interpretation robs the Bible of its original meaning and substitutes philosophical abstractions. The minister who follows this course is replacing God's revelation with human theories.

Typological Principle

An extension of the principle just discussed is known as the typological principle. Typology is a legitimate approach to Biblical interpretation. Many sermons have been preached by Seventh-day Adventist preachers using passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews to unlock the mysteries of the Old Testament sanctuary service. This need not be unsafe allegory or undue spiritualizing. It is, rather, a process of recognizing the type (generally Old Testament) that finds its counterpart in the New Testament antitype.

Preachers get in trouble when they use their imagination too freely in this area. Inferences must be supportable by reason able evidence. Unsound analogies must not be employed. Unreliable authorities must not be used. "Private interpretations" shake faith in the preacher and, more tragically, in the Bible itself.

Conclusions

Ministers who read this article may be tempted to exclaim, "Is all this really necessary?" They may question the importance of an understanding of the theology of preaching, and they may wonder whether the rules of hermeneutics are really meant for them.

In answer to this question, Bernard Ramm, one of the most readable contemporary writers on Biblical interpretation, has this to say:

"It is felt too frequently by preachers that preaching is of such a nature as to exempt the preacher from close adherence to rules of exegesis. Proper exegesis is necessary for commentators and theologians but, preachers it is argued have a 'poetic license' with reference to Scripture. This is most unfortunate reasoning. If the preacher's duty is to minister the Word of God, hermeneutics is the means whereby he determines the meaning of the Word of God. To ask for exemptions from the strict rules of hermeneutics is then to ask for an exemption from preaching the true meaning of the Word of God. This is precisely a repudiation of what a man is called to preach, namely, the truth of God's Word.

"This does not mean that preaching is nothing but public exegesis or drab commenting on the sacred text. There must be energy, life, imagination, relevancy, illustration, and passion in all preaching. Bookish, dry, technical exposition is not necessarily preaching the Word of God. But whenever Scripture is used, it must be used according to sound rules of hermeneutics." --Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 178.

Sound hermeneutics should enhance the preacher's sermons. His messages should be more interesting, more authentic, more appealing, because they reflect more adequately the message of the Scriptures. The Adventist preacher must take seriously the following counsel from Ellen White: "The student of the word should not make his opinions a center around which truth is to revolve. He should not search for the purpose of finding texts of Scripture that he can construe to prove his theories; for this is wresting the Scriptures to his own destruction. The Bible student must empty himself of every prejudice, lay his own ideas at the door of investigation, and with humble, subdued heart, with self hid in Christ, with earnest prayer, he should seek wisdom from God." --Counsels to Teachers, p. 463.

Preaching real preaching is Biblical interpretation, supplemented by the art of persuasion, and all under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


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-professor of applied theology, College of Arts and Sciences, Loma Linda University at the time this article was written

August 1974

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