Weighing Interpretation Options

Yesterday I made passing reference to the process involved in deciding between options when interpreting some aspect of a passage.  Perhaps you can think of two or three ways to take it, to understand what it means.  Perhaps two commentators differ on the interpretation and offer different sets of evidence for their view.  These kind of decisions face us all the time as we are interpreting the Bible.  So how do we evaluate the accuracy and relative weight of the various evidences used to support possible interpretations of a passage?

I still use an approach I was taught in seminary.  It is not a formula that guarantees results.  It is not something that can be put in a spreadsheet and simply crunch the numbers, but as a guideline it is very helpful.  I will list six categories of evidence.  Evidence that sits in category 1 is generally worth more than evidence in category 3.  On the other hand, multiple evidences in different categories may outweigh single evidence in a “better” category, although not always.  This is a guide, not a hard and fast rule.  Here are the categories from most valuable to least:

1. Syntactical Evidence – support found within the passage’s structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

2. Contextual Evidence – support found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context, section context, book context, same writer context, etc.)

3. Lexical Evidence – support found in specific meaning of words used.  Since meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support stands here in third place.

4. Correlational Evidence – support found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  A different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distance passage that is directly influencing your passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is much more significant and may be considered as category 2 evidence.)

5. Theological Evidence – support found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlation, but with a theological creed or system.

6. Verificational Evidence – support found in “experts” (ie.commentators, etc.)  Simply because a big name agrees is of minimal value.  Much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above, then using the commentary adds much greater value to your study.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context.  Many people seem to lean heavily on distant unrelated, but familiar, passages.  They tend to rely on their system of theology and having an expert or two on side in an interpretive decision.  Much better to have the better evidence to support an interpretation too!

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