Dividing the Word

Words are weak – sounds which convey meaning only when both speaker and hearer understand them similarly. But words often convey different meanings in different contexts, and can be interpreted in multiple ways even when immediate context is understood. If either speaker or hearer is inept, ignorant, careless or biased, communication becomes very difficult.

The Bible comprises the most significant words ever composed: God’s Word, revealing the nature of God and Man, detailing how to walk with God. As important as this is, few people appear to understand it in exactly the same way. This isn’t a problem with the Bible; it’s a problem with us.

The Bible is evidently written in such a way that only the virtuous will understand it (2Pe 1:5); the self-seeking are unable to find the truth. (2Ti 3:7)

So, if we come to the Bible dishonestly, with a bias or false presupposition, we invariably find verses to support our view and remain in error. (2Co 2:17) We’re untroubled by verses which appear to contradict us and simply ignore them, handling the word of God deceitfully. (2Co 4:2) In this way, the unlearned and unstable wrest scripture, taking it out of the whole biblical context, unto their own destruction (2Pe 3:16), and remain in darkness. (Is 8:20)

But when we’re seeking truth, we don’t presume to know a given claim is true until we can honestly interpret every relevant text of scripture in a manner that’s consistent with that claim. (Ps 119:6) Since most biblical texts can be interpreted in multiple ways without doing them injustice, we start with texts which are the most difficult to interpret honestly in any other way, and seek to understand the rest of scripture in light of them, in a manner that’s entirely consistent with all of scripture. Only in this way can we rightly divide the Word of Truth. (2Ti 2:15)

We trust that God doesn’t contradict Himself, and that He has inspired the Bible in such a manner that if we rightly divide His Word consistently and prayerfully, He will help us find the truth we need to walk with Him and serve Him well. (2Ti 3:16)

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One thought on “Dividing the Word”

  1. Hermeneutics is how we interpret scripture. Interpreting scripture properly requires:
    1. Presuming the Inspiration of scripture, that it contains no internal inconsistencies and is all profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2Ti 3:16) when understood as literally as context will allow.
    2. Comparing scripture with scripture to establish a theology which does no injustice to any text of scripture (implied by Inspiration).

    We must interpret scripture this way due to the inherent imprecision of language itself; a word or phrase may contain multiple possible meanings or nuances that may be consistent with the immediate context, such that most any text in scripture may be interpreted in multiple ways when considered in isolation. We must decide (or divide) between these various interpretations, choosing which one(s) is (are) valid and true by rejecting those which are invalid and false.

    Concluding that a particular scripture T supports a given premise P is inappropriate unless every effort has been made to see how T might be reasonably interpreted in a manner that is not inconsistent with opposing points of view, and we have verified that T cannot be reasonably interpreted any other way. We then call T a proof text for P.

    We may rightly affirm a premise P to be true iff (if and only if, as in mathematics and philosophy) we have at least one proof text T for P, and there is no counterexample C which cannot be reasonably understood in a manner that is consistent with P. If some C does exist, it proves P is false and that we have not rightly understood T.

    Another way of saying this is that we may rightly conclude that a theological premise P is false iff there is a counterexample C, in which case there can be no proof texts T supporting P.

    Such use of proof texts and counterexamples leverages the time-tested, mathematically rigorous method of proof by contradiction: When assuming A is false leads to a contradiction, this proves that A is true. Leveraging these techniques consistently and impartially is the only way to safely interpret scripture.

    The inherent imprecision of language is what makes meditation on the Word so extremely valuable and essential; as we memorize the Word, hiding it in our heart and meditating on it, we are constantly observing relationships between texts and considering the possible interpretations and contradictions inherent in them. We should be doing this all the time, ensuring as well as we can that we are aligned with the truth as much as possible.

    This is also why opposing points of view are so extremely valuable and essential in our pursuit of God. We are very limited in our ability to discern truth in complex environments all on our own, being easily mislead by our own biases and ignorance. We also have a spiritual enemy intent on deceiving us, constantly suggesting error to us by wresting scripture. (Mt 4:6-7) We are wise to assume that those who disagree with us know something we don’t, and to try to learn as much as we can from them. This is iron sharpening iron: as we honestly consider opposing points of view, comparing scripture with scripture, noting counterexamples to our own theology, we identify and correct inconsistencies in our understanding and thereby learn and grow.

    Whenever we’re earnestly seeking to understand something complex that directly impacts our welfare (e.g. in business or science) we use this technique; we know this works. But very few people apply the required rigor when interpreting scripture; we don’t immediately feel the consequences of our dishonesty here, which is why there are so very many interpretations, so many denominations, and such spiritual darkness in our world.

    We will all die with our own beliefs, and with only our own. In the end, we’re each ultimately responsible for what we believe, not what others do. Getting other people to agree with us doesn’t help unless they’re thinking independently and rightly dividing the Word, so we should encourage others to do so.

    One may ask why did God designed the scriptures like this, making it difficult to find the truth, and not just handing us a perfect doctrinal statement. He must see eternal value in our struggle, transforming us through it, being more interested in who we are than what we know.

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