(June 19, 2021) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, brings a timely challenge…
About seven years ago someone posted on the internet a photo of a dress that caused quite a debate among people regarding its colours. Some people adamantly declared that the colours were obviously blue and black while others just as dogmatically stated that they were gold and white.
What do you think? What were the actual colours of that dress? (Answer at the bottom of the article!)
There is a correct answer to the question and there are also perceived answers… and there are many reasons why the perceived answer appears to be the ‘obvious’ answer!
So what point am I trying to make?
Simply this. Christians often disagree over things that are mentioned in the Bible and often that disagreement leads to disagreeable conflict, arrogance and legalism.
After many decades of academic study and personal reflection of the content of the Bible I must confess that I do not have all the answers! Indeed regarding some of the things I once was convinced were undisputable, I now have to admit that conceivably I may have been incorrect in my strongly held perceptions.
Let me state my conviction that the Bible is wholly the uniquely inspired word of Almighty God from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. I do not doubt its authority, nor do I question that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice.
I fully agree with Paul when he wrote to Timothy, ‘All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …’(2 Timothy 3:16). Paul was writing primarily about the Old Testament, but Christians soon recognised that the books of the New Testament were equally God’s revelation with similar authority to that of the Old Testament.
However, one must admit that there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand. It is interesting to note that even Peter acknowledged that. Regarding the writings of Paul, he wrote, ‘His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other scriptures, to their own destruction’ (2 Peter 3:16).
And there are many passages of scripture that are subject to various interpretations. Obviously all interpretations cannot be right, so it is important that we use the very best means to try to unpack those passages about which Christians disagree.
One of the most important tools to help us understand the scriptures is ‘exegeses.’ I realise that that is not a word with which most people are familiar, but it is a tool that Bible scholars and sincere searchers after biblical truth have been using for centuries. The word literally means ‘to lead out’ and it refers to leading the true meaning out of the text.
Accordingly various basic principles are considered such as:
(i) The language
The Bible was not given to us by God in the English language!
Hebrew (in which the Old Testament was originally written) is a very ancient language and the New Testament was written in an ancient Greek language that ceased to be spoken around 300 AD.
When translating from one language to another (especially from an ancient language such as Hebrew) it is not always possible to have an exact ‘word-to-word’ equivalent. Often words from the original language carry a variety of meanings that have to be understood in the context in which they are used. And even some phrases have to be translated in a way that makes sense to the modern reader.
For example, the phrase in Deuteronomy 2:22 ‘For a fire has been kindled by my wrath’ may literally be translated, ‘My nose burned with fire.’This presents a vivid image of the enormity of God’s anger in those circumstance. Furthermore to insist on a literal translation of this verse poses all kinds of difficulties! So it is important to try understanding what the original language actually says. Fortunately, Bible scholars have often revealed to us the wealth of the meaning behind the original words.
(ii) The literature
There are various forms of literature used in the Bible such as historical narrative, poetry, allegory, metaphor, simile, parable and many other types.
As such it is important that we do not, for example, give a literal translation to a poetic phrase or a passage which is not meant to be understood literally. The type of literature used is a major factor in understanding the message of the Bible.
(iii) The location
By this I mean that we need to understand not only the place (geographically or historically) to which a passage or book of the Bible refers but also the chronological location (past, present, future) to which the passage refers, for example information and lessons about past events, or guidance that is relevant for our present generation, or prophetic messages about the future.
Because of the absolutely unique place the Bible, the word of God, holds for the human race, we affirm with the psalmist: ‘I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path’(Psalm 119:104-105).
And we also note the affirmation of the writer of Hebrews, ‘For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the hear’(Hebrews 4:12).
Eisegesis, which literally means ‘to lead into’ is the opposite of exegesis and is a wholly wrong method of arriving at biblical truth.
The person who interprets the scriptures using eisegesis reads into the text his or her own bias and preconceived ideas and thereby makes the text mean what the reader wants it to mean. Eisegesis seeks to make a point regardless of what the text actually means. Some do this because of sincere but preconceived ideas. Often the justification of an eisegetical position is argued on the basis of ‘literally believing what the Bible says.’ However some parts of the Bible are not intended to be interpreted literally!
But even those who make that claim are inconsistent in their conclusions. For example, when Jesus held a loaf of bread and said to his disciple in the upper room, ‘This is my body,’ he was speaking figuratively and not literally.
Another example: In Revelation 21:16 John describes the New Jerusalem in this way, ‘12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long.’ This is a perfect cube and clearly cannot be taken as a literal description of the New Jerusalem.
There are other passages that have been long debated – sometimes quite heatedly – by some Christians. For example, the description of creation in Genesis has been wrongly used by some Christians as a ‘litmus test’ for measuring the integrity of other Christians. In truth from the earliest days Christian scholars have postulated a variety of interpretations of that chapter, some of which have expressed the ‘gap theory’ which argues that there is a long-time gap between the first verse of Genesis 1 and the second verse.
Some have argued that the chapter is a historical record in which each day of creation represented 24 hours, while others have maintained that the poetic form of that chapter allows for the ‘days’ to represent long periods of time.
Avoiding fruitless debates
Instead of looking for debating points in this chapter it is more fitting by far to see what that amazing chapter has to tell us about our wonderful God.
This has been the approach of many scholarly and saintly expositors throughout history who have avoided fruitless debates about chronology.
Clearly the most inadequate and unhelpful form of biblical exposition is based on eisegesis which has often used God’s word in a divisive way.
Paul’s directive to Timothy – and to us all – was absolutely clear: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth’(2 Timothy 2:15).
It is quite acceptable for Christians to hold differing theological positions that have been arrived at through sincere and sound exegesis. We do not know everything!
A wise and helpful saying which has been attributed to Saint Augustine (but which was possibly made by another person) is as follows,
‘In essentials, unity;
in nonessentials, liberty;
in all things, charity.’
PS. Answer to the question about the real colour of the dress – it is blue and black.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited andBible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Offered free, all of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com