Interpreting the Bible

Here are some thoughts that came to me as I was reading R.A. Torrey’s “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit” (I highly recommend it by the way). Let me know what you think. I learn best by bouncing ideas off of folks.

The early 20th century minister and author, R.A. Torrey, taught extensively on how God works and intervenes in modern life. Contrary to dispensationalists, who believe that God no longer works in a tangible way in the lives of modern Christians, Torrey penned many books about the work of the Holy Spirit, which is taught by scripture to be the spirit of God which indwells all Christians (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

In his work “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit”, Torrey discusses this very topic. In the course of his treatise he describes the various works or deeds of the Holy Spirit by examining the different names or titles given Him in the scripture. It is in this chapter that he makes the following statements which should grab our attention. The topic at hand is that many have falsely believed that God does not work or speak into the lives of people in our modern time. But Torrey argues:

In contrast to these, it is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living God, to give us to know a God who lives and acts and speaks today, a God who is ready to come as near to us as He came to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, to the apostles, or to Jesus Himself. Not that He has any new revelations to make for He guided the apostles into all the truth (see John 16:13), but though there has been a complete revelation of God’s truth made in the Bible, still God lives today and will speak to us as directly as He spoke to His chosen ones of old (p. 55, emphasis mine).”

An important key to understanding the Bible is to understand its original audience. For example, to understand what Jesus meant when He made any statement requires that we understand what He meant to convey. For this we must understand to whom He was speaking. We must remember that while the Bible may have been written for us (2 Timothy 3:16), it was not necessarily written to us. Every word contained within the pages of the Bible was written with a particular purpose and audience in mind yet thankfully these words have been preserved and passed down so that each generation might learn about and understand the character of God and how He works in the lives of His people.

Torrey reminded me of this important rule of Biblical interpretation the neglect of which has lead to some grievous errors in readers’ understanding of scripture. Perhaps what was most surprising about the above passage from Torrey’s book is his application of the “audience relevance” principle to that particular passage in John chapter 16 which he cites. I have never before considered the audience to whom Jesus was speaking when he made the statement “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth (John 16:13).” But it is clear if one reads that verse that Jesus is speaking to the 12 apostles.

The implications of what Torrey is saying are pretty staggering. Such an interpretive model lands a heavy blow to not only Mormonism (which claims that the book of Mormon is “another testament of Jesus Christ”), but also may serves to aggravate Christians who attempt to apply biblical statements to their own time or to their generation. Furthermore this would fly in the face of Pentecostal preachers, such as Rodney Howard Brown who introduce into their theology room for “new”, unprecedented manifestations (typically attributed to work of the Holy Spirit). These “new” manifestations would include animal sounds and outrageously uncontrollable laughter, both of which are common in many Pentecostal meetings. If Torrey’s strict view of audience relevance is right then examples like these could be classified as clearly unbiblical (since no such teaching or manifestations are taught in scripture). Let us apply this logic to a few different examples.

The Book of Revelation

As a constant source of debate and outright argument among believers, the Revelation of Jesus Christ has been interpreted and reinterpreted and its imagery has been under constant scrutiny as everyone attempts to identify the strange beings and beasts within its pages. I believe that understanding not only the date of Revelation (which is another topic entirely), but the audience to whom it was written is the key to understanding what St. John was attempting to convey. In the opening chapter we see that John sees a vision of the ascended Christ who begins showing the Apostle things that “must shortly take place (Revelation 1:1).” Chapter 1 goes on to tell us plainly who the author’s audience is–the seven churches which are in Asia. These were real churches facing real issues. They are the ones who were to receive comfort from this amazing vision given to John. For modern believers who apply the contents of this mysterious book of the Bible to their own lives and circumstances do a great disservice to themselves and provide false hope to those to whom they teach such a faulty interpretation of Revelation. You can read more about this in a great article over at Undeception.

The Book of Joel

The prophet Joel was an Old Testament prophet to Judah (one of the two kingdoms formed when the nation of Israel split). Like most prophets of the Old Testament, Joel was sent by God with a message of judgment against God’s people because of the nation’s sin. The punishment would come in the form of an unprecedented attack by locusts. The locusts would come and be as devastating and unrelenting as a great army. These locusts would destroy crops and the trees of the land. But God, speaking via Joel, then declares how He will restore Judah if His people will repent and follow the Lord again. The Lord declares “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the crawling locust, he consuming locust, My great army which I sent among you (Joel 2:27).” Christians have used this verse to encourage themselves and others after a period of difficulty in their lives in order to express that God is able to restore the person and to somehow make up for the years that the grieving party spent in hardship. What these same Christians do not recognize is that in context, God Himself sent the locusts. To use this as a comforting passage is to also say that God caused the hardship in question. But this is not often what people mean when they use this passage. Audience relevance is forgotten. Surely there are other verses that might apply better to the situation of a grieving person or one who has gone through great difficulty.

These are just a couple of examples in which the principle of audience relevance is ignored when interpreting and applying the holy scriptures. There are others that we could mention such as Matthew 24 in which the disciples ask Jesus to fill them in on the details of the destruction of the temple which is to take place (Matthew 24:1-3). Many, many Christians misapply this entire chapter and teach that it applies to us today and concerns a future second coming of Christ. When in actuality it describes a past event, the destruction of the temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Jesus even states that “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place (Matthew 24:34).” He was telling them that those things would come upon the generation to whom He was speaking.

In “The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit”, R.A. Torrey gives us a glimpse of the importance of understanding the audiences that the books of the Bible addressed when they were written. Groups such as the Mormons and so-called Pentecostal teachers like Rodney Howard Brown have ignored this hermaneutical principle and have fallen into error and taught unbiblical doctrines. Your understanding of God’s Word will be greatly enhanced as you seek to understand its purpose as well as its message. I hope this helps you to gain greater insight into God’s character and what His word can teach us.

Please help me to learn as well. Give me your feedback about this.

Josh H.


3 Responses to “Interpreting the Bible”

  1. September 25, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    You know, my comment got a little too long for this, so I’m going to post it on my own. Suffice it to say, here’s my post .

  2. September 26, 2007 at 6:17 am

    Excellent post! This is something that many of us need to remember as we study the scriptures for ourselves and listen to them being taught. Thanks.

  3. September 26, 2007 at 6:17 am

    That last comment was written by Renee!

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