How Do I Test My Interpretations of the Bible?
Dan Block, a listener in Kansas City, Missouri, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, you write a lot of books, you speak often, and your words reach many Christians around the world. But how do you make sure that what you are saying and writing is in line with God’s desire, will, and heart? You influence so many people so how do you make sure that your interpretations of God’s word are in line with God’s intention?”
1) The first thing I do is take this question seriously. And I have taken it seriously for about 50 years. And the reason I take it seriously is because the Bible takes it so seriously. A person like me — and I have been this way for a long time — who loves to write and needs to write in order to know what I think and then also loves to share what I have seen and what I have discovered with others, a person like that needs to be aware of the warnings that the Bible gives about the dangers in front of me, him.
For example, James 3:1–2, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” So, when James says not many should become teachers, he is admitting God calls some people to open their mouths and explain the Bible and write some things down that might be helpful to other people in understanding God’s word. So, the point of James 3:1 is not that it is wrong to be a teacher. It is just risky, really risky. And nobody should rush into it. So, there is a trembling that this question should give to me and others.
“God calls some people to speak and write about the Bible so that others can better understand it.”
I have wondered along the way whether the verses in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs should keep me from writing and speaking so much. Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” I have written millions of words. That doesn’t sound like “few.” Or Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
Those passages should give a person like me pause, and they have. But after they have given me pause, what I think they mean, basically, is: In the presence of God, don’t think you will be heard or impressive for your many words. And in conversations, beware of people who blather away with endless words, who never get to the point, and who create a fog rather than clarity and dodge the issue with many words and smooth talk. Watch out. Don’t be one, and don’t get sucked in by one. In other words, the abundance of words in prayer and the abundance of words in conversation can be a sign of hypocrisy and that your heart is wrong and something is being hidden.
“In the presence of God, don’t think you will be heard or impressive for your many words.”
So, my first strategy in answer to the question is: Beware and be aware of the dangers of speaking and writing and teaching.
2) I have tried to develop the mindset that measures intuitively — instinctively — that measures virtually every truth claim and every attitude by the Bible. I try to treat my mind like a concordance. And when I am faced with a question about what I should think about something or what I should feel, I type on the keyboard of my mind relevant words or ideas, and I push the button and start the concordance running to see what passages or verses in the Scripture will come up that will shed light on this.
I get really nervous about people who are so opposed to proof texting they never think in terms of texts. I think exactly the opposite should be drilled into people. Test all things; hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). I don’t know any way to test all things except by verses in the Bible that teach truths in the Bible. If you try to abstract truths from the Bible and disconnect them from verses because you are so averse to proof texting, do you know what is going to happen? You won’t have truth in the end. You will have vague, general ideas that you can massage to fit your own ideas. It is verses and concrete statements from the Bible that help us. So, I have tried to make my mind a concordance and test everything by the whirring of that hard drive in my brain.
“When you think you see something in the Bible, test it.”
3) I have tried to develop over the years a very intense and rigorous and detailed and attentive habit of reading Scripture closely and carefully, not loosely, flippantly, carelessly, proof texting my preferences. But really test my thoughts by thinking the thoughts of the biblical writers after them by a rigorous, intense, close, careful detailed attention to the train of thought that they develop in their writing.
4) I have tried to avoid taking positions that are eccentric. I don’t mind using eccentric language like “Christian Hedonism,” but oh, I really abominate eccentric positions, viewpoints, because I don’t think that isolated verses and peculiar interpretations and eccentric viewpoints are safe. It is sometimes called the analogy of Scripture that I try to follow, meaning that when you think you see something in the Bible, you test it. Is it contradicted anywhere else in the Bible? Is it a viewpoint that is out of step with the rest of the Bible? So, I have tried to cultivate the habit of not giving verses weird interpretations to support weird positions that put me on the periphery of Christianity. I want to stay near the center, which is very much like number five.
5) I never want to propound any new truth — ever. I only want to propound old truths. I am very suspicious of newness and “chronological snobbery” as C.S. Lewis called it. The Bible is an old book and it is a sufficient book and it is very likely that any claim to new truth, except maybe in the discoveries of the hard sciences, are very likely distortions of reality. I love to take my cue from Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is.”
“I never want to propound any new truth — ever.”
6) Over the years and even in these later years I have tried to surround myself with people whom I am accountable to morally and in my ideas as well as my attitudes and behaviors. I don’t think anything I write goes public before someone else at Desiring God reads it, except for my tweets — which are almost all straight Scripture anyway. Everything else I write by way of articles or books — I suppose sermons also. I preach, but then after I preach them, everybody hears them and the guys can call me to account if I said anything weird. And before they are posted at the website, they get a rigorous going through by the team at Desiring God. So, I don’t just want to be in history and not do anything new, but I want to be tested by responsible, close associates.
7) And the last thing I would say is I pray constantly that God will lead me into truth and in paths of righteousness and that he will keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. Or, to use the words of Psalm 19:14, I pray, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” And I pray, finally, often, pretty much every time I go to speak, at least. I pray that when anybody reads or hears me — what I have written, what I have said — they will be given a heart by the Lord to believe what is true and to be protected from any mistakes I have made