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Interpreting non-literal language

September 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Arthur PinkNon-literal language. We have left this important canon of exegesis until a somewhat late stage, because maturity of judgment is called for in the applying of the same. There is a considerable amount of non-literal language in the Word of God and it is very necessary that the expositor should recognize the same. Great harm has been done through failure to do so, and not a few serious errors have been taught as the result of regarding what was figurative as literal. Generally speaking, the words of Scripture are to he understood in their plain and simple meaning; yea, their natural and obvious signification is always to be retained unless some evident and necessary reason requires otherwise; as, for example, when Christ bids us pluck out a right eye and cut off a right hand if the same causes us to sin, or when He charged the scribes and Pharisees with “devouring widows’ houses” (Matthew 23:14), for manifestly such language is not to be taken at its face value. But there are many other instances which are not nearly so apparent as those, as when Christ said “by chance there came down a certain priest that way” (Luke 10:31), meaning that he took that direction without any particular purpose or special design—for a literal understanding of those words would deny the orderings of Providence.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

Many injunctions in Scripture are expressed in an absolute form, yet are to be understood relatively, example 2

September 20, 2016 Leave a comment

Arthur PinkWe are not to conclude from the terms of Luke 14:12, 13, that it is wrong for us to invite our friends and relatives to partake of our hospitality, though a comparative is there again expressed in positive language; but rather must we see to it that the poor and needy are not neglected or slighted by us.

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

How often have those words been misunderstood, yea, wrested; for it is a serious mistake to conclude from them either that there was no “grace” under the Mosaic economy or that there is no “law” under the Christian. The fact is that the contrast is not between the messages of Moses and Christ, but the characteristics of their ministries. “Ye see Me no more” (John 16:10), said Christ to His apostles. Yet they did! What then did He mean? That they should not see Him again in a state of humiliation, in the form of a Servant, in the likeness of sin’s flesh—compare “like unto the Son of man” (Revelation 1:13) because then in His glorified state. Acts 1:3, definitely informs us that Christ was seen of the apostles for forty days after His resurrection, and, of course, He is now seen by them in heaven. When the apostle declared,

“I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2),

he did not mean that that was his sole theme, but rather that such was his dominant and prominent subject. When we are exhorted “be careful for nothing” (Philippians 4:6), we certainly are not to understand that care to please God is excluded, or that we are not to have deep concern for our sins.

The above examples (many others could be added) show that constant care is needed to distinguish between positive and comparative statements, and between words with an absolute force and those with merely a relative one.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

Many injunctions in Scripture are expressed in an absolute form, yet are to be understood relatively, example 3

September 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Arthur PinkWords that are used to express perpetuity are not to be stretched any farther than the known duration of the things spoken of. As when the Jews were commanded to keep certain institutions throughout their generations to be ordinances for ever (Exodus 12:24; Numbers 15:15), it was not signified they were to do so throughout eternity, but only during the Mosaic economy. Likewise the everlasting mountains and perpetual hills of Habakkuk 3:6, spoke only of comparative permanency and stability, for the earth is yet to be destroyed.

“But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3).

Neither is this to be taken absolutely, otherwise any act of beneficence which came under the cognizance of our fellows would be prohibited, and that would be contrary to the Analogy of Faith. The primitive Christians did not always conceal their donations, as Acts 11:29, 30, demonstrates. Secrecy itself may become a cloak of avarice, and under the pretense of hiding good works we may hoard up money to spend upon ourselves. There are times when a person of prominence may rightly excite his backward brethren by his own spirit of liberality. This Divine precept was designed to restrain the corrupt ambition of our hearts after the praise of men. Christ meant that we are to perform deeds of charity as unobtrusively as possible, making it our chief concern to have the approbation of God rather than the applause of our fellows. When a good work has been done, we should dismiss it from our minds, and instead of congratulating ourselves upon it, press on to other duties which are yet before us.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

Many injunctions in Scripture are expressed in an absolute form, yet are to be understood relatively, example 2

September 6, 2016 Leave a comment

Arthur PinkYet it is quite plain from the words of Abraham in Genesis 15:6, 8, from his calling the altar “Jehovah-jireh” (Genesis 22:14), from Genesis 26:2, 24, and from God’s words to Jacob in 28:13, that the patriarchs were acquainted with this Divine title. But they did not know Him as the Fulfiller of His promises or in His actual covenant faithfulness; whereas Moses and the Hebrews were now to be given proof of His word in Genesis 15:13, 14, and be brought into the land of Canaan. “Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord” (Psalm 25:15) must be understood in harmony with other Scriptures which show there were times when David’s eyes were turned away from the Lord, and, as the result, he fell into grievous sins; nevertheless that was the habit of his heart, the general tenor of his spiritual life. See 1 Kings 15:5, for another comparative statement about David.

“Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire” any longer continued, as what follows shows—the shadows giving place to the substance: “burnt offering and sin offering hast Thou not required” (Psalm 40:6).

Those last words are obviously to be understood relatively, for such offerings were then required by Divine appointment. But the presentation of the most costly sacrifices (the ram, or a bullock) were unacceptable to Him unless they proceeded from those who sincerely desired to obey and serve Him, as is clear from such passages as Proverbs 21:27; Isaiah 1:11-15. Comparative conformity to the precepts of the moral Law was of much greater importance than compliance with the ceremonial (see 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 69:30, 31; Proverbs 21:3; Hosea 6:6; 1 Corinthians 7:19). Worship is rejected unless proffered by love and gratitude. Similarly are we to understand,

“For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices” (Jeremiah 7:22)

—those were not the primary or principal things I enjoined. No, “But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey My voice”: the design of the whole revelation at Sinai being to inculcate practical subjection to God’s will, the Levitical ritual being a means to that end.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

Many injunctions in Scripture are expressed in an absolute form, yet are to be understood relatively

Arthur PinkPositive statements with a comparative force. Many injunctions in Scripture are expressed in an absolute form, yet are to be understood relatively. This is evident from those examples which are there and thus explained.

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth” (Matthew 6:19)

is expounded in the next verse:

“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” “Labor not for the meat which perisheth” (John 6:27)

is not an absolute prohibition, as the “but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life” shows. Likewise,

“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4):

we must love our neighbors as ourselves. “So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth” is to be taken relatively, for God frequently employs both the one and the other as instruments to do those very things: “but God that giveth the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7) shows where the emphasis is to be placed, and the One to whom the glory is to be ascribed.

“Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible… a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Peter 3:3, 4).

There are, however, numerous examples that are not immediately explained for us, but which the Analogy of Faith makes clear.

“And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the Lord And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty; but by My name Jehovah was I not known to them” (Exodus 6:2, 3).

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

There are many expressions used in the Scriptures indefinitely rather than specifically, and which are not to be understood without qualification

Arthur PinkThere are many expressions used in the Scriptures indefinitely rather than specifically, and which are not to be understood without qualification. Some of them are more or less apparent, others can only be discovered by a comparison and study of other passages treating of the same subject. Thus, “the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it” (Acts 28:28, and cf. 11:18) did not signify that every one of them would do so. Similarly,

“The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5)

and “I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17) were simply announcements that the grace of God was to overflow the narrow bounds of Israel after the flesh. So too “the world” has a variety of meanings and is very rarely synonymous with all mankind. In such passages as John 7:4, and 12:19, only a very small part of its inhabitants were included. In Luke 2:1, the profane world is in view; in John 15:18, 19, the professing world, for it was the religious sections of Israel which hated Christ. In John 14:17, and 17:9, it is the non-elect who are referred to—compare “the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5), whereas in John 1:29, and 6:33, it is the world of God’s elect, who are all actually saved by Christ.

Another word which is used in the Bible with considerable latitude is “all,” and very rarely is it found without limitation.

“All things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Matthew 21:22)

obviously means whatsoever we ask that is according to God’s will (1 John 5:14). When the apostles said to Christ, “All seek for Thee” (Mark 1:37), that “all did marvel” at His miracles (Mark 5:20), and that “all the people came unto Him” in the temple (John 8:2), those expressions were far from signifying the sum total of the inhabitants of Palestine. When Luke tells his readers that he “had perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (1:3), and when we are informed that Christ foretold all things (Mark 13:23) unto His apostles, such language is not to be taken absolutely. In like manner such statements as “all glorified God for that which was done” (Acts 4:21), “this is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law” (Acts 21:28), “thou shalt be His witness unto all men” (Acts 22:15), are to be regarded relatively. Consequently, in the light of those examples, when he deals with “He died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:15) and “gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6), the expositor must ascertain from other Scriptures (such as Isaiah 53:8; Matthew 1:21; Ephesians 5:25) whether they mean all mankind or all who believe.

The same is true of the expression “every man” (see for instance, Mark 8:25; Luke 16:16; Romans 12:3; and compare 2 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Corinthians 4:5). So too the words “all things.” Neither “all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41) nor “all things are lawful unto me” (1 Corinthians 6:12) can be taken at face value, or many Scriptures would be contradicted. “I am made all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22), must be explained by what immediately precedes. The “all things” of Romans 8:28, has reference to “the sufferings of this present time,” and the “all things” of 8:32, means the “all things that pertain unto life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). The “times of restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21) is at once modified by the words immediately following: “which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began,” and most certainly none of them predicted the restoration of the Devil, and his angels to their pristine glory. “To reconcile all things unto Himself” (Colossians 1:20) must not be understood to teach undiluted Universalism, or every passage affirming the eternal damnation of the Christless would be contradicted.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures

Another pertinent example on interpreting general statements

Arthur PinkAnother pertinent example is found in our Lord’s “Swear not at all” (Matthew 5:34). In the section of the sermon on the mount in which those words occur, Christ was freeing the Divine commandments from the errors of the rabbis and Pharisees, enforcing their strictness and spirituality. In the instance now before us, the Jewish doctors had restricted the Mosaic statutes upon oaths to the simple prohibition against perjury, encouraging the habit of swearing by the creature and the taking of oaths lightly in ordinary conversation. In verses 34-37 our Lord inveighed against those corrupt traditions and practices. That He never intended His “swear not at all” to be taken absolutely is clear from His bidding men to swear by no creature, and from His reprehending all oaths in ordinary conversation. The general analogy of Scripture reveals the need for oaths on certain occasions. Abraham swore to Abimelech (Genesis 21:23, 24) and required his servant to take an oath (Genesis 24:8, 9); Jacob (Genesis 31:53) and Joseph (Genesis 47:31) each took one. Paul repeatedly confirmed his teaching by solemnly calling God for a witness (Romans 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:23, etc.). Hebrews 6:16, indicates that oaths are both permissible and requisite.

Arthur W. Pink-Interpretation of the Scriptures