Biblical Interpretation and the Weight it Carries

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from Invitation to Biblical Interpretation 2nd Ed.
by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson.

NEED FOR SKILLED BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

“Do your best,” Paul wrote in his final missive to his foremost disciple, “to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). In a day when people are confronted with a flood of information and are struggling to keep up and set priorities, Paul’s words bring into sharp focus what ought to be our primary object of study: Scripture, “the word of truth.” Like Peter, we ought to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We ought to be driven by a hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:6); we ought to be longing for the life-transforming, “living and active” word of God (Heb. 4:12).

To unpack Paul’s above-cited words yet further, we need to work hard at interpreting Scripture. We must “do [our]best” as “worker[s].” Biblical interpretation is even hard work. The one who wants to master the handling of God’s Word must be like the apprentice of a master crafts person. Over time, and through practice, that apprentice will learn to skillfully use many tools. Likewise, the biblical interpreter must know what interpretive tools to use and how to use them. This is what it means to “correctly handle” the word of truth.

While the analogy holds well between the realm of craftsmanship and biblical interpretation, the argument nonetheless is clearly from the lesser to the greater. If it is important for crafts people to wield their tools skillfully, how much more important it is for those who are called to handle God’s “word of truth” with utmost care and expertise. No sloppy or shoddy work will do. Everything must be done in proper sequence, appropriate proportion, and with the purpose of producing an end product that pleases the one who commissioned the work. Background information, word meanings, the context of a given passage, and many other factors must be judiciously assessed if a valid interpretation is to be attained.

Also, no worker labors without regard for the approval of the one who assigned a particular task. Once again, the argument is from the lesser to the greater: for in the case of biblical interpretation, the one to whom we have to give an account is none other than God himself. It is his approval we are seeking, for if God approves, no one else’s approval, or disapproval, ultimately matters. Our love for God and our conviction that God’s Word is so precious that we ought to spare no effort to comprehend it as precisely as possible will be powerful motivators as we embark on our interpretive journey. In so doing, we will long to hear God’s words of approval, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your master.”

COST OF FAILED BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

Not only are there great rewards for faithful biblical interpretation, but there is also a considerable cost if we fail in this effort. This cost, too, is mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:15. It is shrinking back in shame at God’s judgment by the one who is unwilling to acquire the skills needed to interpret Scripture accurately. The equivalent of improper biblical interpretation is shoddy workmanship, due either to the lack of skill or carelessness. In the area of hermeneutics, this translates into fallacies arising from neglect of the context, prooftexting, eisegesis (reading one’s preferred meaning into the text rather than deriving it by careful study from the text), improper use of background information, and other similar shortcomings.[1]

Scripture is replete with examples of those who failed in the task of biblical interpretation and were severely chastised, because their failure did not merely bring ruin on these individuals themselves but also on those they taught and influenced. In the verses immediately following 2 Timothy 2:15, the apostle makes reference to two such individuals by the name of Hymenaeus and Philetus. According to Paul, these men “have departed from the truth[2] . . . say[ing]that the resurrection has already taken place” (2 Tim. 2:17–18). As Paul pointed out, these false teachers were “destroy[ing]the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18). Interestingly, Hymenaeus is already mentioned in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, where the apostle wrote that he had handed this man over to Satan so that he might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). Yet, sadly, Hymenaeus persisted in twisting and distorting the word of truth.

From this we learn, among other things, that biblical interpretation is not an individualistic enterprise. Rather, it takes place in the community of believers, and the failure or success of the interpretative task affects not merely the interpreter but other believers as well. Note also that, as is often the case with cults—ultimately inspired by Satan, the master distorter and twister of Scripture (see Gen. 3:1–5)—there is a kernel of truth in the assertion that “the resurrection has already taken place.” Christ did in fact rise from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), and all believers can expect to be raised in the future (1 Cor. 15:51–53; 1 Thess. 4:14–18).

But Scripture makes clear that this resurrection is still future, and to say that “the resurrection has already taken place” suggests that rising from the dead is spiritualized and transferred completely into the present. Yet this resembles more closely the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul than the biblical teaching of the resurrection of the body. The problem of Hymenaeus and Philetus, therefore, seems to have been that they improperly imposed their Hellenistic philosophical and cultural conceptions onto Scripture, resulting in an “over-realized eschatology” that failed to acknowledge the future reality of believers’ bodily resurrection according to the pattern of Christ.[3]

This brief example shows that biblical interpreters are charged with a sacred task: handling Scripture with accuracy. They are entrusted with a sacred object, God’s Word of truth, and their faithfulness or lack thereof will result in God’s approval or in personal shame. God’s Word commands our very best because, in the ultimate analysis, it is not a human word, but the Word of God. This means that our interpretive enterprise must rest on a robust doctrine of biblical revelation and a high view of Scripture—as Jesus taught, Scripture is “the word of God” and thus “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Though conveyed through human means, using human language and thought forms, Scripture is ultimately the product of divine inspiration and therefore completely trustworthy.


[1] See the discussion of exegetical fallacies in chapter 13 below.

[2] Compare the reference to “the word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2:15.

[3] The presentation above is admittedly rather basic. For detailed discussions of the rather complex issues involved in the interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:17–18 and the heresy in view, see especially George W. Knight, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 413–14; William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC 46 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 527–28; I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 750–54 (with further bibliographic references); Robert W. Yarborough, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 388–89; and Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy and Titus, BTCP (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 244–245.


This post is adapted from Invitation to Biblical Interpretation 2nd Ed. by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“All the praise heaped on the first edition of this book can be repeated for the second. Along with updating of all chapters, considerable new material has been added. This comprehensive guide wonderfully balances new methods and discoveries with commitment to the unchanging written Word of God. Authored by distinguished scholars of both Old and New Testaments, this wide-ranging manual will continue to aid in opening the Bible’s historical, literary, and theological riches to serious readers, especially those wishing not merely to read but also to apply and proclaim.”
—Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“Hermeneutics is a tricky undertaking, and one can easily drown in technical nomenclature and complex philosophy. But here, Köstenberger and Patterson deliver an accessible and sturdy volume. These two craftsmen have built an entire workshop for the church, fitted with every major hermeneutical tool―history, genre, language, as well as application and proclamation. I encourage laypeople, students, and pastors to put this volume to good use and construct a robust lesson, paper, or sermon. Very well done!”
—Benjamin Gladd, Associate Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary

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About Author

Andreas Köstenberger is a leading evangelical author and scholar. He is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and the founding Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Köstenberger is the author of Invitation of Biblical Interpretation and numerous other books. Richard D. Patterson (1929-2021) (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) was distinguished professor emeritus at Liberty University. He wrote well over 100 articles for major publishers and periodicals, including commentaries on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Moody) and Joel and Kings (with Hermann Austel) for the second edition of the Expositor's Bible Commentary Series.

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