Throughout many years of ministry, Kent Hughes has been known as a faithful and accurate interpreter of the Word of God, both in his pulpit ministry week after week at College Church in Wheaton and in his numerous publications. In fact, I would point to Kent as someone whose ministry models the kind of faithful interpretation of Scripture that I will discuss in this essay.
I write as a friend who worked with Kent for many years on the board of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, who worked with Kent on the translation team for the English Standard Version, and who still serves with Kent on the board of Crossway Books. From many years of friendship, I am quite sure that Kent would agree with much or all of what I am about to say here. In fact, I suspect that he may have taught many of these things to his pastoral interns over the years! But I offer these comments here in Kent’s honor, because I think they represent much of what his life has been about.
My purpose here is to offer some words of advice on right and wrong interpretation of the Bible. I hope these words may help seminary students and pastors and other Bible teachers as they seek to interpret the text rightly and then to teach it week after week to their congregations. Many of the following comments have grown out of twenty-five years of seminary teaching (six years teaching New Testament, then nineteen teaching systematic theology). As I have watched seminary students over the years, they first become excited about all there is to learn about biblical interpretation, then some become discouraged that there is too much to learn, and then a few may even tend to despair, wondering if they can ever know anything about the text when so many different opinions have been written about it over the centuries. The amount of information available, and the number of viewpoints on any passage, can become overwhelming unless we keep them in proper perspective.
To keep students from discouragement, I have tended to tell them over the years that the purpose of seminary training is to help them do better something they already do quite well as mature Christians: understand the meaning of the Bible. That is because I believe God gave us his Word in such a form that ordinary people could, in general, understand it rightly. That is the doctrine of “clarity” of Scripture. “The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple” (Ps.19:7).
So these comments are intended to help people become better interpreters. I have couched my comments as suggestions that may be helpful for pastors and Bible teachers. They include much of what I tell seminary students about how to interpret the Bible, though I hope that others will be helped by these comments as well.
General Principles for Right Interpretation
1) Spend your earliest and best time reading the text of the Bible itself. I’m afraid that too often pastors and scholars can fall into the trap of spending 90 percent of their time reading commentaries about the text and then spend only the last 10 percent of their time reading the text of the Bible itself. But when that happens, people tend only to see problems and disputed meanings in every phrase rather than seeing the clear and strong message of the text itself. I therefore tell students (only partly in jest) that the three most important rules for interpreting the Bible are: (1) Read it. (2) Read it again. (3) Read it again.
The words of Scripture are the product of the infinitely wise, omniscient mind of God. There is much more depth of meaning in them than any human being will ever be able to understand. That is why I have found, and millions of Christians throughout history have found, that increased depth of understanding comes from repeated reading and rereading of a single passage of Scripture, pondering each word and phrase, sometimes even slowly reading the text aloud. Since this is God’s Word, it is especially important that we do this while consciously being in the presence of God, asking him to help us understand his Word rightly, to see connections to other parts of Scripture, and to see proper application to life.
Time and again I have found that the most powerful sections of my own sermons have come from times when God has first spoken deeply to my heart through the words of the Bible itself, and I have been so moved that I have experienced tears of awe and reverence, or tears of sorrow and repentance, or times of great joy and laughter and rejoicing at the greatness of God. Commentaries do not speak to my heart in this way. Now please do not misunderstand me. I own many commentaries (not as many as Kent, however, for I have seen his library!), and I have even written one myself (on 1 Peter). When I get “stuck” and simply can’t figure out the meaning of a passage, I will read a number of commentaries and gain helpful insights. And when I have finished spending extensive time with a text of Scripture on its own, after that I will read through some commentaries to see if I have missed anything or made any foolish mistakes. But I cannot do that first, or I simply get lost in endless detours and byways that should not be my primary concern.