Reading the Bible: Barnett & Jensen

© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The quest for power |
neo-pentecostals and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 7-16). It is reproduced here with permission.

Knowledge basic to the Christian life

Paul asked:

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without a preacher?
He concludes:

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ (Rom. 10:14 and 17).
We learn here that our salvation comes by hearing the message of the gospel and believing; or, to put it another way, through the knowledge of God transmitted to us by human language. Nor is it only the beginning of the Christian life which depends on the knowledge of God.

When Paul prays for the Christians at Ephesus (1:16f.; 3:14-19), at Philippi (1:9), and at Colossae (1:9,10), he prays for knowledge. Certainly this means than intellectual understanding. It is indeed a word that speaks of our relationship with god, but it must include the assimilation of information, for our Christian life is not based on ignorance. That is why Paul exhorts Timothy:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching… Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:11-13, 16).

Notice the importance of scripture. Here we find the light we need to establish and maintain our relationship with God. That is why Paul stresses:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:14-17; authors’ italics).

Thus knowledge of God is of primary importance for every Christian. This explains why the New Testament speaks of a special class of person called a teacher, whose work is so vital to the body that he is to be paid for it (Gal. 6:6). It is not that the teacher is a more important person in God’s sight, but that his function is of great value (see Eph. 4:11-16), and it is necessary if the other members of the body are to work together properly.

Since the knowledge of God is basic to our salvation and growth as Christians, we ought to notice the means by which God has chosen to impart such knowledge to his children. He is free to do as he pleases, but, as has already been indicated, his usual method is through the scriptures. In fact since we know that the Bible is God’s word to us, we are bound to bring all other claims to reveal God’s mind to the test of whether they conform to it (see Deut. 13:1-4).

In short, Christians need to give special attention to the Bible. When they do, they discover at once that God has chosen to reveal his mind to us in human speech, using human grammar, literary forms and style. This means we are forced to respond to God’s word by reading it as a book.

That may seem obvious. But a surprising number of people seem to think of the Bible as a charm. Some people put a copy under their pillow at night. Others try to discover God’s mind by opening the book at random and reading what they find. Others have no hesitation in squeezing from plain words incredible meanings. Others use words torn from the very middle of sentences. Others read weird fantasies into the text. Thus the book becomes plasticine, to be set in whatever mould suits the person concerned, and the word of God is lost.

This last point can hardly be overstressed. It is no good thinking that if what we say has some vague relation to a part of the Bible, or has a pious air to it, then it is the word of God. It is a very serious matter to read something into the Bible that it is not saying, for then our relationship with God, based as it is on knowledge, is severely hindered. Relationships need truth.

There is a need therefore for us to have some rules in mind as we begin to read the Bible, and this chapter will set out some such rules. But our treatment can hardly be exhaustive, only preliminary, and the reader is asked to consult a book such as A. M. Stibbs Understanding God’s word (IVF).

Some suggestions for the Bible reader

To begin with, it would be good to ponder the words of one of the first translators of the Bible into English, Miles Coverdale:

It shall greatly help ye to understand Scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth (authors’ italics).

This is very good advice for the reading of any book, but especially so in relation to the Bible, where the meaning is so important. People often approach it with strange ideas. Chapter and verse divisions, quite foreign to the original writing, have been introduced. These divisions are very useful as study aids, ut give the Bible a stilted, unique appearance which does not in fact belong to it.

(i) Clarify the words and phrases used. Most of us use a translated Bible. This means that words or phrases need to be studied for their meaning both in English and Greek. It will not do to assume that the English word is always exactly equivalent to the Greek or Hebrew word that it translates. And example of this is the key word ‘kingdom’. In English this almost always means a place, a geographical location. Although the word can have this meaning in some New Testament passages, yet often it would be better translated ‘rule’ or ‘reign’, a rather different concept. Another example of a word whose meaning is wider in the original than it is in modern English is ‘righteousness’. So it is obvious how important study is, even for a well-known text like Matthew 6:33!

(ii) Note the ‘terrain’. That is to say, the Bible has within it many types of literature: prose, poetry, fable, proverb, allegory, parable, etc. One ought not to handle the prose of a Pauline epistle in the same way as the poetry of a Psalm.

In Job we find statements about God and the world which are not meant to be true. The book is a dramatic poem, the speakers disagree and fall into error, and the whole needs to be read before we can get the message. This is quite different from the use to which a Pauline letter may be put.

(iii) Note the immediate context. Words plucked from mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, even sometimes mid-book, are in danger of being twisted. Read and understand the whole before separating the parts.

There is the story of the careless preacher whose bishop ironically suggested that he preach a sermon on ‘hang all the law and prophets’ (AV), a text wrenched from Matthew 22:40; or another of the missionary who saw the words ‘flee to Egypt’ (Matt. 2:13) as a command for him to do likewise. These are obvious examples of a practice which is perhaps the most frequent of all lapses in regard to the Bible.

Often a Biblical statement is taken from the context of the conversation being reported. Thus, for example, while no one thinks for a moment that we must all buy linen waistcloths because the Lord told Jeremiah to do so (Jer. 13:1), yet we have been told to ‘go, sell what you have, and give to the poor…’ (Mark 10:21) because Jesus told a rich young man to do this. In this regard a study of Coverdale’s advice is essential: we must ask ‘who is speaking?’ and ‘to whom?’

(iv) Know the background. Although the main message of the Bible is available to anyone who will read it by itself, yet the meaning of various parts will be enhanced greatly if the historical and geographical background to the passage is known.

To pick an example, the meaning of Christ’s injunction about swearing oaths is clear enough (Matt. 5:33-37), but it is helpful to know something of the lengths to which the contemporary legalists went in avoiding the implications of the Old Testament teaching.

Psalm 137 benefits from geographical and historical knowledge in the reader. A glance at Babylon and Jerusalem on the map and an acquaintance with the history of Babylonish/Jewish relationships will go far to explain the tone of this song.

For some passages the background information is not only desirable: it is necessary. This is especially true of the prophets.

(v) Note the Biblical context. Because the Bible says so much about God, and our understanding is so limited, there are unresolved tensions in its pages, for example that between the sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility. It can never be right to resolve such tension by ignoring a Biblical doctrine.

(vi) The consensus of Christian opinion. Amongst those who believer in the full inspiration and authority of the Bible, there is agreement on a large range of important issues, such as the trinity, the atonement, and the deity of Christ. Sometimes this agreement is expressed in creeds or in confessi0ns. It is wisdom to treat these summaries of Bible teaching as fallible, but with great respect, and to ask ourselves whether we are certain that we have the Bible’s meaning clear when we find that we have stepped beyond the bounds of agreement reached by many different Christians over a long period of time.

It may indeed be that a new Luther or a new Calvin needs to emerge. But the onus is surely on the new interpretation to prove that it is accurate as over against the old, and we are wise to adopt a flexible conservatism.

Some pitfalls to avoid

(i) Flights of fancy. The man who interprets the Bible must always be asking himself ‘What did the human author mean?’ When he ascertains this he will be close to the meaning which God wants him to have.

Trouble is caused by those who wish to see the plan of salvation (or something else) everywhere in the Bible. Thus Naaman’s seven dips in Jordan have been used to give the seven points of conversion (contrition, confession, conversion, commitment … etc.) or the seven points of sanctification, or any seven points the speaker has in mind. Whatever we end with, it is not God’s word!

Similarly the parable of the good Samaritan has been abused, so that every detail of the story stands for something—the man for Adam, the priest for the law, the Samaritan for Christ, and the inn for the church. Anyone can read any meaning he wishes into the Bible if this is permitted.

Fantasies have been read into the high priest’s garments, Elijah’s robe, and Christ’s seamless robe. Someone recently said that he thought that the institutional churches were represented in the Bible by Saul, for whom God withdrew his Spirit!

There is no end to such examples: but the sad result is the same. The word of God is stolen from the Lord’s sheep and they are not fed. A man’s relationship with God requires true knowledge.

(ii) Fixation. This describes the habit of being so engrossed in one doctrine (e.g. predestination) as to read it everywhere in the Bible.

(iii) Wrong presupposition. We must come to the Bible very carefully and humbly, knowing that our culture and theology have conditioned us to read it in a certain way.

Thus, a person who has a firm conviction that God’s love is irreconcilable with punishment may well explain away those passages in the Bible which speak of his wrath. Some have even gone so far as to abandon the whole of the Old Testament on these grounds; others omit parts of the Psalms iin church; others retain the unpleasant sections by unconsciously re-interpreting the Biblical language to suit the twentieth century.

We are all subject to this. We hear a Biblical word or phrase, read our own meaning into it, and then proceed on the assumption that the Bible is speaking like that.

(iv) The misuse of narrative. This is a common evangelical failing, and especially in relation to the book of Acts. We hear that the early church did something and we assume that it is a command from God for us to do it—that is, we turn a description (an ‘is’) into a prescription (an ‘ought’). In this way open-air preaching is justified; or small cell-group meetings; or appeals for commitment at meetings and so on.

Christ has granted freedom in these and many areas; some teachers seek to remove our liberty by turning narrative into commands. No one pretends that we must always ask anyone we meet who is reading the Bible, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:30) as Philip did; or that we must pool our resources as the primitive Christians did (Acts 2:45);1 or that we must sing hymns at midnight if we are in gaol as Paul and Silas did (Acts 16:25). That men did these things is wonderful and interesting; that we must do them is nonsense.

A further example will illuminate the point. In 1 Corinthians 15:29 the practice of receiving baptism on behalf of the dead is referred to. This is the only mention of it in the New Testament, and Paul does not condemn it. If anything, he is favourable about it.

The Mormons actually practise the baptism for the dead, basing their activities on this text. Yet no one else does, for it is plain to most people that the description of a happening in apostolic days is not in itself a command for us to do the same. An ‘is’ is not an ‘ought’.

This example illustrates, too, the main problem with unexplained narratives—they cannot give the whole story. The author selects some details to tell us, but does not give us all; thus when we come with our questions, questions which did not trouble him, we find the text silent or ambiguous. One instance of this is in Paul’s conversion which is noted on page 33. The careless reader, too eager to see what is already in his mind, will be led astray.

Naturally, narratives have some use. They can, for example, confirm that a certain practice is not contrary to the gospel. So we may be confident that open-air preaching is not contrary to God’s word, since both Jesus and the disciples did this; but we are not to assume that it is commanded in God’s word. We may gather imperatives or doctrines from narratives where the author himself has given the details a theological significance known to us. This significance may be learned from his writings as a whole, or from the immediate context, or both. But taking a narrative on its own clear terms is rather different from the unfettered inventiveness so typical in much Biblical interpretation.

To take an example, Peter’s dealing with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) is not a model for us to follow. But it appears to be in Luke’s terms an illustration of the authority of the apostles (Acts 5:11, 12). Speeches given as part of a narrative are of the same character. We may indeed gather commands, promises, and doctrine from the words of an apostolic speech addressed to the public whether general or Christian.


All this may seem overwhelming to the ordinary person, and he may feel that he is not equipped to read the Bible himself. This is not the case. The rules above are common sense, the sort of thing a person does without thinking when faced with a book to read.

Because of our propensity to view the Bible as magic (as distinct from inspired) we sometimes approach it in the wrong way. Prayer for light, common sense and humility are sufficient for the ordinary Bible reader, and he should be encouraged to read on and find God’s plain way. Nor has God left us on our own. Besides the aid of the Holy Spirit, Christ has in every generation given some men the ability to teach. These men have a gift for understanding and explaining the Bible. Thus we ought to turn to such people for help as we read—whether it be to one’s local teacher or pastor, or to the books and commentaries written by teachers for our instruction.

1. Since writing this the author has become aware that the ‘Children of God’ do in fact bind their members to communal living.
Christian discussion on the Spirit & Evangelical, Pentecostal, Reformed & Charismatic Belief, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of Pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit | by Joe Towns

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