by Steven Chan

There are some bible students and believers who are of the opinion that one ought not to interpret the Scriptures too strictly or literally. They contend that one should just take the gist or “essentials” of the Scriptures and not put too much emphasis on following everything written in the Scriptures. According to them, much of what was written were so-called “occasional writings” or letters written to address specific issues of the recipients at that time. Therefore, one should not use those writings to apply to our situations today because their situation is different from ours – especially their culture differs from ours today. But what does the Scriptures say for itself?

1.    The Bible claimed to be the inspire Word of God as per the apostle Paul in his epistle to Timothy in 2 Tim 3:10-17:

“But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, 11 persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra—what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. 12 Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. 13 But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Paul affirmed that the Holy Scriptures are able to make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. In other words, the Holy Scriptures is the means by which one becomes wise for salvation – the Scriptures is the medium by which one knows how to be saved.

Peter later described the writings of the apostle Paul as “scriptures” too:

“consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:15-16). By referring to “the rest of the Scriptures”, the apostle Peter implied that the writings of Paul were also “Scriptures”.    

In any case, Paul affirmed that what he had preached was the “Word of God”:   

“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thess 2:13).

“If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor 14:37).

Paul intended his epistles to be read by other churches:
Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col 4:16).

Peter explained what is meant by inspiration:
“knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, 21 for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20-21).

The Holy Spirit did not merely inspire their “thoughts” but “revealed” the truth to them as well as chose the “words” that they would use to speak the truth:-

“But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit… These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” (1 Cor 2:10,13).

This means that the “words” of the Scriptures are inspired and one needs to pay attention to the “words” and not just the thoughts or ideas or concepts or gist or the essentials.

In fact, Jesus said that He had given the “words” from the Father to the apostles:

“I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me” (John 17:6-8).

In fact, the “words” of the Scriptures are so important that the apostle Paul even made an argument based on the singularity of the word used:
“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.” (Gal 3:16).

2.    The Scriptures can be read and understood by ordinary men.

“Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 8:31-32; 17:17). It is possible to know the truth which is the Word of God.

The apostle Paul said that when the believers in Ephesians:
“how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:3-5).

It is clearly God’s intent that His people would be able to have a common understanding of the Scriptures as otherwise, they would not be able to “speak the same thing” and “be of the same mind and of the same judgment”:

“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10).  

Anyone deviating from the teaching of the apostles: –

would be deemed as having a spirit of error: “We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).

would be condemned: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:6-9).    

should be avoided: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Rom 16:17).

Although we may not like the idea of excluding fellow believers, the Scriptures clearly stated that we are to avoid those believers who teach contrary to the doctrine taught by the apostles. In fact, the apostle Paul pointed out that while it is unavoidable for believers to eat with non-believers, believers are not to eat with a fellow-believer who is not walking according to God’s Word:-

“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:9-11).

Paul exhorts to “hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 1:13). Notice that he emphasized “sound words” as opposed to “sound ideas or concepts or just the essentials”. Paul said that these “same” things are to be passed on to faithful men who may be able to teach others also:
“And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim 2:2, ASV).

3.     The Scriptures can be misunderstood and the consequences of misunderstanding are dire.

Jesus rebuked the Sadducees for “not knowing the Scriptures” although the Sadducees were learned religious leaders of the day:- “Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29).

According to Jesus, the Sadducees were mistaken in their understanding of the Scriptures concerning the resurrection because they had “assumed” that things in heaven are similar to those on earth – more specifically that they thought that there will be marriages in heaven just like on earth. But Jesus corrected their incorrect assumption and misunderstanding.

Jesus then quoted Exodus 3:6 as declaring the truth about the resurrection: “But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him” (Luke 20:37).

How does the scripture in Exodus 3:6 reveal that there is a resurrection? Jesus said that the declaration that God is “the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob” implied that God is the God of the living and not of the dead, and therefore of necessity, it contemplates a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Hence, according to Jesus, the truth is that there will be a resurrection of the dead and the Sadducees were mistaken in teaching that there will be no resurrection. That was how Jesus understood and applied the Scriptures. The cultural context when the statement was made in Exodus 3:6 was irrelevant. In fact, one could say that the Sadducees made the mistake of rejecting the resurrection by introducing their own perception of the applicable context – assuming that what happened on earth would be the same as in heaven. This account in fact illustrates the danger of using one’s own perceived context to interpret the Scriptures.

The noted commentator, Albert Barnes wrote thus with regards to this passage in Matt 22:29-32: “Jesus showed that the doctrine of the future state was there, and that the Sadducees should have believed it as it was, and not have added the absurd doctrine to it that people must live there as they do here. The way in which the enemies of the truth often attempt to make a doctrine of the Bible ridiculous is by adding to it, and then calling it absurd.”

They ought not to have changed the teaching concerning the resurrection by adding or inserting their own context.

Peter warned those who “twist” or “wrestle” with the writings of Paul, which are regarded as Scriptures, that it would result in their own destruction:-

Consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Pet 3:15-16).    

Jesus said concerning the Pharisees:
“Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch” (Matt 15:14).

We must be careful with what we teach: “Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you” (1 Tim 4:16).

4.     Cultural context needs to be considered but it should not change the clear teachings of the Scriptures.  Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book entitled, “How to read the Bible for all its worth” suggested that the text should always be understood in light of its context – and no one would dispute with that.  However, their contention that the understanding of the subject discussed must always take into account the cultural context such that if the culture changes then the teaching must also necessarily be changed, is of questionable validity.

Dr. Mark Rathel in his thesis on Hermeneutics submitted to the Liberty University Rawlings School of Divinity said that Fee and Stuart adopted a non-literal biblical interpretation of the Scriptures.

Dr Mark Rathel wrote (Start of Quote):-

“The finest example of this may be found in their commentary on divorce and remarriage:

‘Divorce is scarcely a valid option for couples, both of whom would be followers of Jesus — a point repeated by Paul (1 Cor. 7: 10 – 11). But in a culture such as postmodern, English-speaking North America, where one out of two adult converts will have been divorced, the question of remarriage should probably not be decided mindlessly and without redemptive concern for new converts.”
(Page 117 of the 1982 edition by Zondervan, under Chapter 7, entitled, “The Gospels – One story, many Dimensions”, under the subtitle “Some Hermeneutical Observations” under the heading “the Teachings and Imperatives” – the first paragraph immediately under that heading – inserted by Steven Chan)

This is to say that Fee and Stuart may be argued as taking original cultural context too far. More pointedly; what, if any Bible verse do they consider a timeless moral imperative? OT writings, Prophets, Law, as well as, NT Gospels (sans the Book of Acts), Epistles, and apocrypha appear to have no literal contemporary meaning whatsoever; according to these authors.” (End of quote)

The approach proposed by Fee and Stuart that the teachings of the Scriptures may be modified depending on the cultures prevailing at any time, is certainly a dangerous one. It makes the Scriptures of “no effect” – just like what the Pharisees did at that time as recorded in Matt 15:3-6: –

“He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.”

Fee and Douglas is likely to make the commandment of God of no effect by cultural considerations.

Even though they then believed that homosexuality is wrong, if culture changed such that homosexuality is an accepted alternative lifestyle, what is there to stop anyone arguing that the plain teaching of the Scriptures must now be changed to fit the prevailing culture? – which by the way, is precisely what some modern day theologians advocating the acceptability of homosexuals into the church are arguing today.

The approach to the understanding of Scriptures proposed by Fee and Stuart is not likely to lead believers to “speak the same thing” with regards the teachings of the Scriptures. It will only perpetuate divisions among believers as each one feels free to interpret the Bible howsoever he deems fit.

5.     God wants His people to “live and walk by faith” (Rom 1:17; 2 Cor 5:7). And “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom 10:17). One walks and lives by faith when one hears and obeys the “word of God.” One can only enter the kingdom of heaven by doing the will of God: ““Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Doing the will of God is hearing the teachings of Christ and doing them: “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24).

When believers fail to “hear and obey” the word of God, they no longer walk by faith. So, in all matters of faith, because God has spoken on these matters, there should be unity – all should “speak the same thing”, be of the same mind and same judgement. Where God has permitted us the liberty to choose from various options, then there should be liberty of choice – subject to the requirements of love and expediency (Rom 14; 1 Cor 8). In all things, we should have charity or love towards all.

The unity of faith is described in Eph 4:2-6:
“bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Unfortunately, there can be no unity of faith when believers teach and practise different baptisms (different modes – sprinkling, pouring, immersing and for different purposes – eg. to show that one is saved already, or to permit one to partake the Lord’s Supper, etc), different body of beliefs (different creeds), and different bodies of believers or churches (with different organisational structures and names).  This is not what the Lord prayed for in John 17:20-23:

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”

The early Christians were united as one because “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Paul described this “oneness” of believers in 1 Cor 1:10:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” This unity of faith is only possible when all believers walk by faith by “hearing and obeying the word of God.”

Although some matters may be of greater gravity than others, it is not left to us to jettison or modify those that we regard as of less importance, or may be modified by culture:-

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matt 23:23-24).

Jesus said that all the teachings of God needed to be done/obeyed: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” We must do the entire will of God – and not do just the part we deem “essentials”. Man shall live by “every word of God”: “But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” (Matt 4:4).  We are not permitted to only live by some words of God; we are to live by every word of God.

May we respect the Scriptures, study it, obey it, do it and be ready to be judged by it:

He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day49 For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak” (John 12:48-50).