The Correct Handling of Scripture

The correct handling of the Scriptures (2 Timothy 2:15) that in the interpretation of Scripture it is important to take account not only of what is written but of whom, to whom, with what words, at what time, to what intent, with what circumstances, and considering what goes before and what comes after.

Twisting the Scriptures  How should Scripture be interpreted? There are almost as many views of this as there are interpreters. The Scriptures can be made to prove almost anything. Particular passages have been used, for example, to support slavery and apartheid, and also the doctrines and teachings of strange religious cults and sects. The apostle Peter, speaking about Paul's writings, warned that these, in common with other Scriptures, were being distorted by ignorant and unstable people, with disastrous consequences (2 Peter 3:16). This distortion has continued ever since. It is all too easy for us to twist Scripture to arrive at a meaning that we find convenient to our way of thinking, which is why Paul sets out a fundamental principle for Timothy, his son in the faith, who was leader of the church at Ephesus. Timothy was to do his best to present himself to God as someone who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). The Greek term translated "correctly handles" occur in a number of places in Scripture; e.g. Proverbs 3:6 ("he will make your paths straight") and 11:5 ("The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them").

Cutting a straight path  These passages suggest the cutting out of a straight road across uncharted territory, and the idea of cutting straight indicates an accurate and straightforward interpretation, exposition and application, in contrast to the devious distortions spoken of by Peter. The correct way to interpret Scripture is in a straightforward manner. This straightforward approach means that the words in a passage should be given their normal sense, unless there is evidence that other meanings should be applied. In much of the Old Testament, and in some places in the New, poetic and symbolic language is used, and this must obviously be taken into account when interpreting such passages. However, in the absence of these, we should assume that the writer means exactly what he says, and what he has written should be interpreted literally in every detail.

Attention to detail  The attention to detail is important. The Lord Jesus stated that "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). We are required to look at exactly what Scripture says, as we seek to interpret it. To determine this, it is important for us to look beyond our English translations, which are sometimes an interpretation rather than a strict translation, in order to arrive at the original meaning.

Bishop Miles Coverdale  Miles Coverdale, writing in the sixteenth century, set out the principle that in interpreting Scripture one should "take account not only of what is written but of whom, to whom, with what words, at what time, to what intent, with what circumstances, and considering what goes before and what comes after." It is therefore important to take note of the context within which particular statements in Scripture are made. This means that individual verses should not be considered on their own. Rather a decision on their interpretation can be made only in the light of the section, the chapter and even the book in which they are contained. Many errors in doctrine and practice stem from looking at verses in isolation.

Consistency and Differences However, it is not only the immediate context that requires to be observed. We must also consider the consistency of our interpretation with the rest of Scripture. The Word of God is consistent within itself and does not contain contradictory messages. If we find ourselves interpreting a passage in such a way that it is incompatible with other teaching in Scripture, this must be recognised and our interpretation of both passages must be reconsidered before we proceed. However, it is not appropriate to force agreement between passages by twisting individual verses or changing their meanings, to make them compatible with other passages elsewhere so that they fit our views. Differences must be identified and investigated. We can sometimes learn more by considering differences between passages than by looking at similarities. In order for us to understand individual passages of Scripture we have to have an appreciation of the wider picture of God's purposes, as revealed to us in His Word, so that we can identify the context within which the information is set. Only in this way can each one of us hope to be presented before Him as an unashamed workman, who correctly handles the word of truth.