Hugh Fulford: Interpreting the Scriptures

On March 22 I sent forth an essay titled “Another Look at CENI (Commands, Examples, and Necessary Inferences).” I observed that in my judgment “commands” does not adequately describe what is actually intended by the term—that a better way of expressing the matter is to say that in the Scriptures we have various kinds of “statements” (including commands) that are intended to communicate God’s will to us.

My own preference for expressing what is often referred to as commands, examples, and necessary inference is to say that Scripture uses statements, examples, and implications to communicate God’s will to us.

None of these, however, constitutes a hermeneutic (a method of interpretation); instead, the statements, examples, and implications of Scripture require the use of sensible, valid principles of interpretation to correctly understand and properly apply them.

Since the Bible is a revelation from God communicated through various divinely inspired writers (II Timothy 3:16-17), the only truly valid and beneficial system of interpretation is that one which enables us to determine from the statements, examples, and implications of Scripture those things we must do to be well-pleasing to God.

Alexander Campbell, one of the leading lights in the effort to restore original New Testament Christianity, in writing about how to understand the biblical teaching regarding the Holy Spirit, said:

“Our province is to understand and teach the meaning of the words and sentences, which the  inspired writers have used on this subject, judging that when these are fairly and fully, that is, grammatically and logically understood, we are in possession of the ideas which God designed to communicate to us” (The Millennial Harbinger, 1834, pages 508-509, underlining mine, hf).

What Campbell said with reference to understanding what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit is equally true with reference to understanding what the Bible teaches about any matter, including how one is saved from sin, how one is to worship, and how one is to live so as to please the Lord. When the words and sentences of Scripture are grammatically and logically understood we may know that we have correctly interpreted God’s word.

It is beneficial in studying the Scriptures to recognize that they are comprised of various genres of literature. In the Bible we find law, history, poetry, prophecy, biography, and letters. Through these various kinds of literature God has communicated His message to us.

In studying the Bible it is essential that the reader keep in mind the context of any given passage. Certain questions should be asked:

  1. Who is speaking? (The devil, fools, and others who are not to be believed speak some things recorded in Scripture.)
  2. To whom is he speaking? (Was the message to a limited audience, or was it intended for “every creature” in “all nations”?)
  3. Of what is he speaking? (A temporary, cultural situation, or an abiding truth, doctrine, and practice?)
  4. When was the thing spoken? (The age when God’s plan of redemption through Christ was still a mystery, or the age when God’s plan had been fully manifested [Romans 16:25-27]; “time past” or “these last days” [Hebrews 1:1-2]? This is one of the most important “keys” to properly understanding God’s will for us in the Christian era.)
  5. Why was the thing spoken?  (To answer a question, such as in Acts 2:37-38; to provide a regulation, such as in I Corinthians 11:23-34?)
  6. What else does the Bible say on this subject? (We must take into consideration all that the Bible says on a matter to know the full truth on that subject.)

The Bible is a revelation from God. As such it was intended by God to be read and understood by all. From a practical standpoint most of the principles to be used for reading and understanding the Bible are the same as those we use for reading any other document—a book, this morning’s newspaper, and even this essay.

Hugh Fulford
May 17, 2011
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#biblical-interpretation, #ceni, #hermeneutics