Ground Rules of Biblical Interpretation – Part 1

How is it that so many godly men and women can be so convinced that Calvinism is the clear teaching of scripture? Though I believe to fully answer that question it would take an entire book, in this post I will only give the answer that seems the most obvious to me; namely, several passages of the New Testament seem to teach its primary doctrines. Men and women with a sincere desire to submit their hearts and lives to the plain teaching of scripture have read these “Calvinist verses,” sincerely and prayerfully wrestled over them, and ultimately submitted to that interpretation which seemed obvious to them. I am convinced that if there were no such passages in the Bible there would be no Calvinists in the world today. One of the greatest compliments I can give my Calvinist brethren is that their error does not primarily come from a desire to promote a cherished philosophical belief, but from a sincere devotion to the word of God and an equally sincere misunderstanding of it.

In a previous post, “Calvinism’s Bold Accusation,” we looked at how a disciple is converted to the errors of Calvinism and some of the strongholds that keep him devoted to that system once he has submitted to it. We pointed out how the fear he has of following his own reasoning above the revelation of God is used against him. Because of that godly, but easily manipulated, fear he ignores the God-given revelation of his conscience and is duped into following his false reasoning about the meaning of certain passages of scriptures. Once he has committed himself to this false interpretation of a certain scriptures, his misdirected zeal ensures that no argument can tear him away from it. He builds up his defenses against the light of his conscience and common sense by reading as many Reformed authors as possible who reinforce his misunderstanding of scripture. This leads him to conclude that the answer is undeniable. He often ends up being annoyed with the “hard-headed” Christians who are more devoted to “their humanistic philosophy of the almighty free will of man” than to the “plain truth” of scripture. This false certainty, and the prejudice that often arises from it, ensures that the disciple is trapped in error for good unless God intervenes.

This section of my blog is not meant to be a “divine intervention” for my Calvinist brethren. I trust God is able to keep them from falling in spite of the errors they have embraced; just as I trust that God is able to keep me in spite of any errors I have ignorantly accepted into my belief system. This section of my blog devoted to the subject of Calvinism has been written as a disciple’s guide for avoiding the errors of Calvinism, not as a guide for escaping Calvinist errors. So the discussions that follow in the next few posts will be aimed primarily at helping the disciple understand what some particular “Calvinist verses” are teaching, not dissecting and overthrowing every Calvinist defense of their interpretation.

As I have observed and participated in the debate between biblical Christianity and Calvinism I have noticed an interesting mistake made on both sides. If you have followed any such debates online you will see long lists of scripture references on both sides. One side will throw out a list of verses and then the other side will counter with “equal and opposite” verses, as if the one who can reference the most verses defending their position will win the debate and take home the trophy. Of course the error is obvious; you can’t disprove some verses by using other verses. Each and every verse is part of the word of God, and unless we are willing to say that some verses are not from God, we have some work to do. We will have to stop defending our position with verses that seem most acceptable to our viewpoint and start taking a good hard look at the verses we are most uncomfortable with.

Many biblical Christians have done this and in the end converted to Calvinism. Not because these “Calvinist verses” really teach what Calvinism says they do, but because the answers provided by those defending biblical Christianity are often hard to find, and unsatisfying when they are found. Often times they are an obvious attempt at explaining away those verses instead of teaching what they actually mean. In their godly zeal to overthrow the errors of Reformed Theology many of my non-Calvinist brethren have faithfully told us what certain passages don’t mean, and just as faithfully forgot to tell us convincingly what they do mean.

These “Calvinist verses” become black holes that have no light to give and are to be avoided at all cost. This is a tragedy for two reasons. One is because it leaves the humble and hungry disciple without a satisfying answer to his important questions. The second, and more important, reason is that it leaves a gap in biblical revelation. All scripture has something to teach us, but if we avoid it or “cancel it out” with other verses, then we miss out on some of what our Lord wants us to know. For this reason, as we try to nail down how to interpret scripture we will use some “Calvinist verses” as examples. Hopefully we will see not only what these verses do not mean, but also what they do mean. And more importantly what process we must use to arrive at satisfying answers.

Location, Location, Location

Many business gurus will tell you that there are three important rules to starting a successful business, (1) location, (2) location, and (3) location. The same can be said for interpreting any passage in the Bible. Rarely do the writers of scripture throw in a random thought that has little to do with the surrounding context. So the key to knowing what any particular verse or passage means is by looking at what is said before and after it. We must ask who is writing the verses we are trying to interpret and who they are writing to. Only if we understand the situation of the author and the recipients can we hope to understand what is being communicated.

Often when people read the Bible they think of it as a “love letter” written personally from God to them. It is true that the Bible was inspired by God and is supposed to be personally applied in each of our lives, but we can’t apply something before we have interpreted what is being said. And we can’t understand what is being said unless we understand that the different books of the Bible were written by a particular prophet or apostle to a particular person or group of people. If we understand what the author was communicating to the people they were writing to, then we can understand and apply what God is saying to us. Many of us make the mistake of understanding the message of the Bible through glasses that are tinted by our own personal situation. The problems we are facing, the culture of the nation we live in, and even the theological issues debated in our day, can cloud our understanding of what the Bible is really saying.

So we have two things to deal with, our context and the context of scripture. Our context can often make us think that we understand the meaning of particular scriptures, when we are actually just interpreting it through lenses tinted by our cultural understanding. In order to avoid making this mistake we must pay close attention to the context of scripture. By doing this we will be able to understand what the original author meant to communicate. In this way we will find out what God is trying to communicate to us through his word. Then, and only then, we can apply God’s word to our lives. The old saying says it simply, “It was God’s word to them, before it was God’s word to us.”

Plain Meaning of Scripture

When the disciple is confronted by the claims of Calvinism he will often start hearing a couple catch-phrases that are often employed by Calvinist teachers in order to add weight to their arguments. The first phrase is “the plain meaning of scripture;” the second is, “interpret scripture with scripture.” These are both basic principles of scriptural interpretation that are used by all Evangelical Christians, not just those from a Reformed perspective. Many disciples don’t hear these phrases until they face the challenge of Calvinism for the simple reason that our Reformed brethren are usually more theologically literate than the rest of us. So though we might first hear of these principles from Calvinist teachers, the disciple can be assured that these principles belong to all Bible believing Christians, not just Calvinists.

Both of these principles are pretty much what they sound like. The “plain meaning of scripture” simply means that unless a scripture is clearly a metaphor or some other figure of speech then scripture says what it means and means what it says. The Bible is God’s clearly revealed word, not a mysterious puzzle that can only be understood by super-spiritual prophets that comprehend the “deep things of God.”

But this phrase is often abused when used to convert disciples to Calvinism. This is where context becomes important. The plain meaning of scripture is not the same as the seemingly obvious meaning of scripture. Many times the meaning of a verse seems obvious to us because of our personal context. As we mentioned our cultural, geographic and historical context affects our understanding of scripture. But just because it seems obvious to us, doesn’t mean it is correct. The plain meaning of scripture is not the first idea that pops into our head when we read a passage. If that were so then the “plain meaning of scripture” could be different for every person. We all come to scripture from different backgrounds and perspectives. The plain meaning of scripture doesn’t mean that our first impression about a passage is the right interpretation; it means that the author was communicating a plain and understandable message to his original readers. We can find this clearly communicated message by learning who was speaking to whom and for what reason. We learn these things by looking closely at the historical and scriptural context.

Let’s look at an example from Romans 9:18-21 (GWT). For further discussion of this passage you can read the previous post on Romans 9.

“Therefore, if God wants to be kind to anyone, he will be. If he wants to make someone stubborn, he will. You may ask me, ‘Why does God still find fault with anyone? Who can resist whatever God wants to do?’ Who do you think you are to talk back to God like that? Can an object that was made say to its maker, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ A potter has the right to do whatever he wants with his clay.”

What is the obvious meaning of this passage of scripture? That is, when anyone in our day reads this passage, what is their first impression? I would guess that 95% of Christians that read this passage for the first time assume Paul is teaching that God has the right to make some people believers and other people unbelievers; and only an arrogant person would dare question God about this. Those seeking to bring humble and hungry disciples into the fold of Calvinism will exclaim, “Aha, how can you deny the plain meaning of scripture and continue in your cherished philosophy of the almighty free will of Man?”

In order to understand why this is usually the first impression of anyone in our day reading this passage we must pay attention to our cultural and historical context. Chances are you are reading this blog because you have been wrestling with the claims of Calvinism. Maybe you have often heard about divine predestination and God’s right to save some and leave others to perish. It is possible that you struggle with fear because you are uncertain whether you are one of God’s chosen people or not. Even if you are not wrestling personally with the teachings of Calvinism, it is very unlikely that the first time you heard about it was when you started reading this blog. Why not? The meaning of predestination is one of the most controversial topics discussed in the Body of Christ, and it has been for some time now.

Since we live in a cultural and historical context in which this issue is always just under the surface, it is no wonder that Paul’s way of expressing himself strikes a nerve with us. How could he be talking about anything else? The language he uses seems perfectly suited to the debate about absolute predestination and unconditional election. For this reason the sincere Calvinist assumes that his interpretation is the clear meaning of scripture and can’t help but say, “I told you so.” It is at this point he will pull out this principle of biblical interpretation and say we must follow the plain meaning of scripture. But it is at this place he makes an error. He confuses the seemingly obvious meaning of scripture with the plain contextual meaning of scripture.

In order to find the plain meaning of scripture we will have to do our homework, not simply rely on first impressions. And our homework is not to run to Reformed commentaries that simply confirm the seemingly obvious meaning of the passage. We must look deeper into the context of the passage itself. We must ask who is writing the letter of Romans and to whom. We have to go through it chapter by chapter and figure out what he is writing about and why he is doing so. When we do this it won’t take long for us to figure out that the Apostle Paul is writing to the inter-racial church in Rome. From chapter one on we will continually see the contrast made between Jews and Gentiles. And by the time we get to chapter nine we will see that Paul is trying to answer the question of why so few Jews have come to Christ even though he stated in chapter one that the Gospel is “for the Jews first.”

Paul was not a Calvinist arguing with arrogant Christians who refused God’s right to predestine some souls to eternal life and leave others to die in their sins. He was an apostle to the Gentiles arguing with Jews who thought that their nation somehow had the corner market on God. These Jews felt God was unrighteous to use their rejection of Christ to spread the Gospel to the non-Jewish nations. They couldn’t understand how God could reject the Jewish nation who had served him for so long and accept the ungodly and idolatrous Gentiles. Paul explained that God had the right to judge their hard-hearted rebellion by handing their nation over to spiritual blindness; and he also had the right to offer redemption to the nations that had been ignorant of him up until then. The Jewish people had no right to blame God for using their rebellion to further glorify his name among the Gentiles. Since God first offered their nation salvation in Christ, and they willingly rejected it, he had the right to use their rebellion for his own purposes, just as he had with Pharaoh. Who were they to question God’s sovereign right to judge their sin and show mercy to the other nations who willing place their faith in Christ!

The plain meaning of scripture is revealed by the context of the original reader, not the modern day reader. Because of misunderstanding this simple principle many have been led astray by the superficial interpretation of Calvinism. This is a little mistake, but it has led to large error.

(In the next post we will continue to look at this scripture while learning about the next basic principle of interpretation; namely, scripture interprets scripture.)

10 thoughts on “Ground Rules of Biblical Interpretation – Part 1

  1. Hi,

    You wrote that God ” had the right to use [the Jews] rebellion for his own purposes, just as he had with Pharaoh”. You forget that God told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart before hand. So it was already God’s plan and purpose to harden and not give Pharaoh grace.

    Exodus 7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. 2 You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, 4 he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. 5 And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

    1. Patrick,
      I didnt forget that God planned to harden pharaohs heart beforehand, nor did i forget he planned to harden israel. God always planned to punish the proud.He knew full-well who wud act arrogantly and even this rebellion he planned to turn about for the salvation of his chosen people.God made everything, “even the wicked for the day of judgment.”
      thx for ur comment.
      gbu
      chris

    2. Patrick,
      Sorry i missed one of ur points in my response. U said God planned ahead of time not to give “grace” to pharaoh. by this i assume u mean “saving grace”. God gives grace to the humble, & opposes the proud. so,yes God planned to deny Pharaoh “saving grace” knowing that he wud reject the “calling grace” that he did give him. Like with israel he,along wth all those who refuse to submit to the Gospel have been “prepared for destruction”.

      God planned from eternity to deny saving grace to those who reject the light of the Gospel. This is God’s eternal decree, “those that believe will be saved, those that dont believe will be condemned.” This was the decree that the Jews had problem with in Rom 9, and why paul rebuked them by saying,”who are u, oh man?!”

      Note that the position i express here is “conditional election”, that is, God decreed to give his saving grace to those who met the condition of faith. this is different from “unconditional election” which states that god chose certain individuals for no discernable reason. the scripture is clear that men are accepted on the condition of faith,this is the message of the Gospel, “believe & u will be saved”.

      thx again.
      gbu
      chris

    3. Hi Patrick you said,
      “You forget that God told Moses that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart before hand. So it was already God’s plan and purpose to harden and not give Pharaoh grace.

      Exodus 7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. 2 You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, 4 he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. 5 And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”

      Let’s back up to Chapter 1 of Exodus and then move to 3 which will lay the foundation of Pharaoh’s heart later being finally hardened by God. We read in Exodus 1 :

      5All the persons who came from the loins of Jacob were seventy in number, but Joseph was already in Egypt. 6Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. 7But the sons of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.
      8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. 10“Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.” 11So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. 13The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; 14and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them.

      So Clearly this new Pharaoh has already begun to harden his own heart towards God and His people. Then we read in Chapter 3 of Exodus

      13Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations. 16“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I am indeed concerned about you and what has been done to you in Egypt. 17“So I said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”’ 18“They will pay heed to what you say; and you with the elders of Israel will come to the king of Egypt and you will say to him, ‘The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. So now, please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.’ 19“But I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion. 20“So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go. 21“I will grant this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be that when you go, you will not go empty-handed. 22“But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and the woman who lives in her house, articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; and you will put them on your sons and daughters. Thus you will plunder the Egyptians.”

      Notice in verse 19-21 God’s foreknowledge of Pharaoh’s heart on what it will take to let His people go. Then we go on to read in 4 and on that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and on the first couple of plagues Pharaoh again hardened his own heart.

      Blessing you,
      Russ

  2. You said, “Paul explained that God had the right to judge their hard-hearted rebellion by handing their nation over to spiritual blindness; and he also had the right to offer redemption to the nations that had been ignorant of him up until then.”

    True enough.

    Psa147:19 He speaks his word to Jacob,
    his laws and judicial decisions to Israel.
    20 He has done nothing like this for any other nation.
    The other nations do not know the decisions he has handed down. Hallelujah!

    For how many thousands of years did God leave the other nations ignorant of Him? Wasn’t that a strange thing to do if God really loves every single person the same?

    Your take on Romans 9 is an interesting study in context.

    You said, “Let’s also take a moment to consider Paul’s quotation from Malachi 1:2-5. In that passage it is clear that Esau refers to the nation of Edom, and Jacob refers to the nation of Israel…And just as Jesus didn’t mean we should literally hate our parents if we want to be his disciples (Luke 14:26), there is no reason to assume that God really “hated” Esau who had not even sinned yet.”

    It’s interesting that you appeal to Mal1 to show that “Esau” refers to the nation, yet then randomly pull Luke14 to take a blind stab at what is meant by “hate.”

    Mal1:3 but Esau I hated. I turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the jackals in the desert.

    4 “The descendants of Esau may say, ‘We have been beaten down, but we will rebuild the ruins.’

    “Yet, this is what the Lord of Armies says: They may rebuild, but I will tear it down. They will be called ‘the Wicked Land’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is always angry.’

    And “angry” is such a mild translation. God’s wrath abides on them…they are an abomination. This seems to be a MUCH better contextual template for understanding the word “hate” in Romans 9 than a random verse from the Gospels. Yet Romans 9 says that God hated them in this way before they were born and had done anything wrong…which violates your foundational (and un-biblical) belief, so you dismiss it.

    You wrote “men are only response-able when they have the ability to respond.”

    This is the foundational belief which overrides anything the Bible might try to teach you. It’s completely unbiblical. You believe that if God commands that men love Him with all their heart, soul, mind and strength every second of every day, that such a command implies the natural ability to obey.

    But that is exactly what Paul is getting at in Romans 9: that Pharaoh was raised up to rebel. The first thing God told Moses was that Pharaoh would not let the people go until God forced him with miracles. God did not simply “allow” Pharaoh’s disobedience, He intended it…to the point of hardening him in those choices that led to his destruction. (Which is problematic if you interpret 2Pet3:9 as God “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”) If you accept man’s philosophy, God would have been guilty of entrapment – putting Pharaoh in that position so that he would disobey – but God refuses to appeal to human justice and instead says, “Who are you to judge me?”

    There was no possible scenario where Pharaoh would have simply said, “Sure, you can all go” because human beings aren’t random creatures who make decisions “freely” – we choose based on what we desire and what we understand…based on who we are. I am amused to imagine noncalvinists cautiously entering a voting booth…never sure if they will choose the candidate they agree with and prefer, or whether their will might freely choose to vote for the candidate they despise and disagree with (but of course, you don’t believe this nonsense really – only when arguing with calvinists).

    The jews at that point were in the same boat. Their rejection and unjust murder of the Messiah was God’s predetermined plan (Acts2:23). It was the Lord’s will to crush him with suffering. (Isa53:10) God did not “make them rebel” – they acted according to their desires and beliefs – but He absolutely intended their disobedience…that was the plan all along. They could never have done otherwise, yet they were still responsible and still needed to repent (and similarly, their responsibility to repent does not imply an ability to repent.)

    Context is the very thing that points people toward calvinist beliefs…unless their foundation is something other than the Bible…

    1. charles,
      thx for ur comments. i assume u were responding to the post “romans 89- whats it about?”

      firstly let me note that my main audience is disciples that dont believe in calvinism but are confused by it. so i only argue with the calvinist opinion to the point i need to. since most become calvinists before hyper/consistent calvinists,i didnt feel it necessarry to spend time refuting the belief that god hates the unelect. john calvin taught that god “loves” all men wthout exception (consider his interpretation of john 3:16). most calvinists i hav interacted with wud agree wth my take on the word “hate”. so i only touched on it all for the sake of disciples who wud be confused by the word. i took it as an oppurtunity to teach them about another verse (hate ur family) that often perplexes them.

      so i will not offer a defense here,most christians who have tasted of the loving kindness of god know that instinctively and that is confirmed by the whole tenor of scripture. most calvinists only differentiate “electing love” & “general good will”. i think ur the first i have met to say that god hates most people (most r unelect). i will leave u to wrestle that one on ur own.

      next, u implied i said men “have a *natural ability to obey”. i will hav to check my post and see if i made that heretical statement. that wud be pelagian indeed. what i intended to communicate was that men are responsible because God’s gracious call in the gospel enables them to make a choice. god’s commands come with grace to perform them including the command to love god. jesus commanded the cripple to “rise & walk”. this was an impossible command,but commands of god are also promises; if god commands it he will grant graxe to obey it. so when the command of the gospel to “repent & believe” comes to men lost in their sin, that command is a promise as well; faith comes by hearing the word.

      lastly u referred to pharaohs hardening. i dont believe that god passively “allowed” pharaoh to hav a hard heart, again i will hav to check my wording on my post. i believe the hardening of pharaoh’s heaert was the active judgment of god on pharaoh for his rebellion. just as rom1:18 shows the same for the gentile pagans. 2thess2 also speaks of god “sending a strong delusion” as jidgement on those who dont believe,so tgey wont believe & be saved.

      this hardening is key to the passage since tge hardening of israel is what it points to. pharaoh represents israel in the passage. rom11:7&25. this jugdment,also mentioned in the gospels and the last chapter of acts, is what brought salvation to the nations,as pharoahs hardening spread the fame of god to the nations.

      thx again for ur comments. gbu
      chris

    1. Thx for ur input.
      Romans 8 starting in vs 18 discusses God’s faithfulness to God’s people, the Church. this raises the question, “If God is so faithful to his people, why is Israel in lost?” Romans 9-11 answers this question.
      That is the context. if ur interested in a more complete discussion on romans 8 check out my post “unpacking the golden chain of salvation” in the calvinism section of this blog. for romans 9 check out “romans 9- what is it about”.
      gbu

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