Monday, January 5, 2009

The Importance of Balance in Biblical Interpretation

I suppose there are some important things one learns after 35 years of ministry. Amazing, simply admitting that I have been in ministry for 35 years makes me feel old. Alas, I digress...One of the important observations I have made in these many years of ministry is the vital necessity of balance in biblical interpretation.  

But what do I mean by balance in biblical interpretation?  Balance in this context involves the mature interpretive skill of seeing two related contrasting truths that give a broader, fuller, and balanced understanding of the full biblical teaching on a subject. A good example might be the twin, but distinctive truths, that God wants Christians to trust Him for their financial survival, but He also wants Christians to work hard to earn a living. Both of these truths are in the Scriptures, and they are clearly taught there. One can find Scripture verses that obviously tell us to not be anxious about anything, including money.  In fact, Jesus exhorted believers to not serve "mammon" or money in His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus repeatedly warned about the danger of greed and worldly concern about money (i.e. parable about the sower - see the soil that had thorns).  But the Ten Commandments clearly affirms private ownership in its prohibition on coveting, and Paul commands that one should work hard to provide for one's family.  This Pauline commandment was made in such strong terms that Paul stated if one neglected or refused to do such, then he was to be treated like an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) (WOW!).  So, who is right;  Jesus or Paul? The answer is - both are right.  They are giving two important contrasting (not contradicting) truths that together give a balanced biblical perspective on a vital issue. Jesus was not teaching that the believer should be lazy and not work, nor was Paul teaching that we should not trust God with our financial needs.  Taken together these teachings give a full expression of biblical instruction on these issues.  

Another significant example of this is the role of faith and works in salvation found in both Paul's writings and the Epistle of James.  It sounds like Paul discounts works in salvation altogether, and James discounts faith as a basis for justification.  But a closer observation of both authors reveals that each contributes central ideas regarding the necessity of both faith and works in their proper place in the overarching subject of salvation.  So let me pull some central ideas together that need to be regarded as central to this topic of balance and biblical interpretation.

Warning:  To neglect balance in biblical interpretation not only results in a misunderstanding what the Bible says about the topics involved, it sets the stage for aberrant teaching and ultimately heresy itself.  Every cult I know is partially created because of unbalanced teaching.  It is a requisite that we maintain balance in our understanding of Scripture.

Example:  I saw an example of unbalanced Scriptural study not long ago in a marriage where the husband took the biblical idea of husbandly and fatherly authority way out of proportion.  He used it to dominate over and dictate to his wife and children.  His mistake was that he forgot LOVE, and it was destroying his wife and children.

Suggestions:  So, how can Christians protect themselves from falling into unbalanced interpretations of biblical teaching?
1.  Look for opposite and contrasting truths.  Ultimate truth is so large that it is composed a many sub-truths.  These sub-truths taken together form the large composite of the ultimate truth.  Without a complete view of all sub-truths, one does not get the big picture of ultimate truth. 

2.  Be honest with yourself.  Let's be honest, there are some truths we like and some with which we struggle.  Those truths that seem to be contrasting with our basic personality and emotional constitution are as important as those truths that fit easily within our natural makeup.  When you study the Bible, be honest with yourself and the text.

3.  Listen to other Christians.  We Christians need each other.  Let's listen to each other as we share together the Word of God.  Often we will find that others have a perspective of a passage that we missed and desperately needed.  Not all Christians have discerning insight into biblical passages, but Paul taught us in 1 Corinthians that we are the Body of Christ made up of many different types of members.  We need to listen to each other.

4.  Be humble.  Don't think at any one point in your Christian journey that you understand everything about anything.  Christians are learners (disciples), and we will learn (we should learn) until the day we die on earth.  And in heaven we will continue to learn for all eternity.  Don't become obnoxious by stating or implying that you know it all.  Keep learning!

Summary and Conclusion:  My Systematic Theology professor in seminary years ago used to say he learned much about boats and water when he was growing up in Holland.  He remarked one of the most important things he learned was that it really did not matter which end of the boat one fell off of, he still got wet.  Let's be careful as Christians about extremism in biblical interpretation.  To be faithful to the text of Scripture we must give attention to balance.  Amen!

1 comment:

  1. Your exhortation for us to be humble as a means of protecting ourselves from unbalanced biblical interpretation reminded me of a loved one, for whom I proceeded to pray. I found this post instructive, and I've joined with you in your prayer in the succeeding post. Thanks for sharing.