They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading, (Nehemiah 8:8 ESV).
This verse explains how Ezra read the Law of God to the assembled exiles who had returned to Jersualem by the time of Nehemiah. He read the Law clearly, but also gave the sense so that the people understood. Ezra, clearly, is reading, and then interpreting, the Scriptures.
In the absence of prophets, interpretation has become the critical vehicle for understanding God’s will for us. We read the Bible and pray for proper discernment so that we can understand what God desires from us– this necessitates interpreting the Scriptures.
Interpretation itself requires some standards– without such standards being upheld, you get the confusing morass known as modern “Christendom,” with the multiplicity of interpretations on almost any issue. The confusion is a stumbling-block to many, yet ought not dissuade us from attempting to understand what God desires from us. The word hermeneutic, describing such standards, has been demonized constantly, but without good reason: we all have to have a hermeneutic, and our hermeneutic must be based on principles of interpretation as seen in the Scriptures.
I have found that many discussions go nowhere because the methodology used by each party behind the interpretations do not work together. Both sides will often walk away believing that they have scored the victory over the unanswering opposition, yet in truth one or both sides walks away clearly flawed because of the underlying methodology of interpretation and not from the Scriptures themselves.
Methodology, then, is just as important as the final, interpreted, product. If Ezra’s interpretive methodology was more allegorical than literal, something like in Philo of Alexandria, the resulting lesson to the people would be nothing like a more literally-based interpretation.
Does discussion of methodology require terms not used in Scripture? More often than not, yes. Does this mean that we shouldn’t talk about it? Absolutely not! If we cannot agree on how to interpret the Scriptures, we’ll never agree on our interpretations!
Time would fail me to list all the various methodological issues relating to Biblical interpretation. I will content myself with a few important ones.
- Handling the text aright (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). Not being careful to present God’s Word accurately leads to massive problems. Many times people have gone astray because they have imposed their inferences on the text or their conclusions based on Biblical principles upon the text as if they were exactly what God said.
- Owning up to inferences: many times we believe things based on inferences we have made from a text. There is nothing inherently wrong with inferences, but we run afoul of God’s Word when we act as if God literally said what we have inferred. Any inference, by necessity, is based on shaky ground: there is no direct indication from the text that the inference is right, and the inference made may not take into account other plausible inferences that would contradict the first one. It is also impossible to discuss what Scripture says when someone is arguing not for Scripture but for the inference they have made from the Scriptures. People tend to infer far more than authors imply…and this is exceedingly true in Biblical studies.
- Command, Example, Necessary Inference. When we use our hermeneutical methods to interpret the Scriptures, we need to keep them straight. I don’t know how many times I have heard that “we’ve been commanded to come together the first day of the week to break bread…” No, we haven’t. We’ve been commanded to assemble with one another (Hebrews 10:25), but it is by approved example that we do so on the first day of the week to break bread and drink the cup (Acts 20:7). Since commands carry more weight than examples or inferences, we need to make sure that we speak properly lest we deceive ourselves.
- The use of Biblical principles: the Scriptures make it clear that Christians are to use their brains and use principles from the Scriptures to decide whether to participate in various practices or believe various doctrines (cf. Galatians 5:19-23, Hebrews 5:14). Making deductions from Biblical principles, however, is not the same as receiving a “thus saith the Lord.” Example: gambling. When I look at the practice of gambling, I discern that it represents covetousness, idolatry, and greed, and is not anything like the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23); I can say, therefore, that based on Biblical principles, gambling is sinful. I cannot say, however, that God says that gambling is sinful, because I cannot point to any Scripture that explicitly says that gambling is sinful. I can point to Scriptures that show that covetousness, idolatry, and greed are sinful, and show how gambling involves these sins, but God never explicitly said that gambling is sinful.
We’re not going to gain anyone’s respect if we are too casual with God’s Word. If God explicitly says it, say He said it; if He did not explicitly say it, own up to that, and make your argument. We ought not confuse the two.
- Balance. If I were asked to point to one factor that has led to division and dissension over two thousand years of “Christianity,” I would point to lack of balance. Almost every denomination was formed as a reaction to a previous denomination’s practices or beliefs, and the new denominations were as off-balanced as the “parent” one. The Protestant Reformation denied the Roman Catholic system so much that they went too far the other way: Roman Catholics may over-emphasize works, but Protestantism under-emphasizes them. Religion breeds extremism, and such extremism is never right.
Now, let no one believe that by “balance” I mean the center of any issue. One can create a balance that is further right or further left than center, and in many instances, proper spiritual balance is not in the dead center but to the left or right of center. Extremes, however, are rarely, if ever, right. It is no more right to deny that Christians must work to obey God than to deny that we need God’s grace. If one’s beliefs are being formed as an opposition to another belief, and not based on what the Scriptures say, then the belief will most probably be imbalanced.
- Contradiction and perspective. We know that the sum of God’s Word is truth, and this is an essential truth to have in our perspective. On the surface, there are plenty of seemingly contradictory ideas. We must use proper discernment– and holistic discernment– to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
This proper discernment will force us to make decisions, and to understand some verses in terms of other verses. We also have to consider the whole perspective of the Scriptures on a given issue. For instance, in interpreting Romans 14, I do so in light of Paul’s statements in Romans 15:1-3, 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, 33, and Philippians 2:4. I begin to look at Romans 14 in terms of Christians needing to put others first and recognizing that things that are lawful but do not encourage are not profitable– and because of that, my interpretation of Romans 14 differs greatly from those who wish to use it to continually justify the “strong” brother.
Many more examples could be used, but I the above gives the idea. We need to test our interpretations and attempt to find the key: that passage that allows all other verses to be understood in its terms to remove all contradiction. Our understanding may not be what we perhaps would personally like, but let God’s Word be true and every man a liar.
We can understand God’s message for us– but there will never be any agreement, or proper understanding of truth, until we’re on the proper page of interpretive methodology. We must be as Ezra, reading out the Scriptures, and giving the sense, so that all may understand.