Saturday, January 8, 2011

Prayer and Listening to God Part 5: How "Rightly Handling" Makes All The Difference

(This is Part 5 of a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here for Part 1).

In the last article of this series, I took the opportunity to talk a little about the rich fellowship and communion we can enjoy with God in prayer. Prayer is not "one-sided;" we are not simply talking into the air! God is with us in our prayers. In today's article, as promised, I'll offer a hopefully helpful and interesting overview of Bible interpretation, and how it matters when it comes to the issue of listening for God's voice. In the next article, I hope to present some common examples of misinterpreted Scripture along that line. I was fascinated to see how this misunderstanding has come about in the church, and hope you will be, too.

Hermeneutics, of course, is the fancy word with a simple enough meaning: it’s simply the method of interpreting any text, including Scripture. Using the right hermeneutic is part of what Paul is talking about to Timothy when he tells him, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). There is a right way and a wrong way to “handle” Scripture, and much of this has to do with right and wrong ways of interpreting it. If we rightly interpret the Bible we are well on our way, with the Holy Spirit’s illuminating help, to rightly understanding it, teaching it, and obeying it.

The good news is that in many ways, reading and understanding the Bible is just not that hard. The Bible is literature, a collection of writings written in comprehensible genres like history and poetry. It's important to recognize that and to understand how those genres impact the message. This is done through using the grammatical-historical method of reading and understanding. (This is the exact method used in reading any literature.) Its aim is to discover the meaning of the passage: what the author intended, and what the original hearers were meant to understand.

Old Testament prophecy and the apocalyptic writings are challenging, of course, and require careful and prayerful study within their genre. And of course, the unregenerate man will not understand the things of God. That being said, though, the Bible has great clarity in its message, in that its meaning can be clear to the ordinary reader. Rightly gaining that meaning involves keeping in mind guiding principles like these:

Context is King

This cardinal rule of interpretation means that a verse in the Bible is understood in the context of the chapter it's found in, and a chapter of the Bible is understood in the context of the book it’s found in, and a book of the Bible is understood in the context of the overall message of the whole Bible. I don't mean to sound as if that's always simple and easy, because it's sometimes not. But that's why Paul told Timothy to work hard at rightly interpreting and teaching God's word.

Scripture interprets Scripture

All of Scripture, having the same Author, is in harmony with itself and never contradicts itself. Therefore, less clear passages are always interpreted in light of more clear passages. For instance, a New Testament passage that seems to say that all people will ultimately be saved must be interpreted in light of the many passages that tell us clearly this is not the case. The explanation is that “all” often means, especially with Paul, that both Jew and Gentile are included, or sometimes it refers to people from all different sorts of groups. Sometimes it just means, literally, all! :) The context usually provides the clue.

Descriptive passages do not teach us to expect the same

Descriptive texts are the narratives of the Bible--stories that describe events of certain times in redemptive history. Prescriptive texts are the teaching passages of the Bible that prescribe how we are to live and what we are to expect as Christians. In the New Testament, for instance, the Gospels and Acts contain a lot of narrative, while the Epistles contain mostly teaching. Narrative parts of the Bible teach important things, too, but they do not necessarily teach that the events they describe will happen again. They are historical. For instance, the story of Peter walking on water does not teach that we should expect to walk on water. This will become very important as we look at the issue of listening for God’s voice in prayer. It is to the prescriptive, the teaching portions of the Bible, that we primarily look in order to learn what to expect.

Next post in this series: the enduring legend of the still, small voice!

(Please click here for Part 6.)


Lobbans said...

"Just what the Dr ordered". A good friend who has not started to grasp the contents of your post is preaching tomorrow. I'm praying for him according to your "Rightly Handling" - thanks!

Jeri Tanner said...

Good deal, Estelle!

Ken Starkey said...

...oh to live a prescribed sip the cold savor the honey...

to listen to the still small verse...