What do I need to build my fence? I need four-by-fours, two-by-fours, and hog panels. This is a utilitarian fence, not an entry in Better Homes and Gardens. So I go to the store and purchase my supplies. I now have a stack of four-by-fours, two-by-fours, and hog panels; as well as a box of nails, some screws, and a box of fencing staples. In essence, I have a fence. It is not yet assembled, but I do have a fence. Now I need the proper tools: hammer, screw driver, and pliers (because you always need pliers), and I need a post hole digger. So I head to the shed and gather up my tools; and I need an accurately drawn up plan with proper measurements, etc. Once I have that, I mark off where the posts will go, sink the posts, attach the two-by-fours, and then put up the hog panels, and voila! I have an assembled fence.
However, the potential for disaster is never far away. Therefore, to avoid disaster I must do three things. They are:
1. I must have the proper tools (I can't pound staples and nails with a tape measure)
2. I must have at least a basic understanding of my tools and how they are properly used.
3. I must actually get up and do the work, otherwise I will simply have a pile of fence but not a properly assembled and useful fence.
“But how does this relate to theology?” you may ask. I know I would! To properly understand Scripture, and thus have a proper understanding of theology, one must follow the exact same steps. The fence is the Bible, and just as a properly built fence can protect your property; a properly understood Bible can protect you spiritually from a great many spiritual dangers, primarily the twin dangers of false doctrines and false teachers.
So, the first thing you have to do is gather up your supplies, namely, a Bible. And get a good one. There are many to choose from, some good (I like the NASB, NKJV, and ESV) and there are some bad ones, such as The New World Translation, the Joseph Smith Translation, and The Message. I won't go into all of the various factors that go into finding a good Bible, but try to stay with either a “word for word” translation or perhaps a “thought for thought” translation. But stay away from paraphrases, and this is important, stay away from study Bibles produced by individuals. At least for the time being. While there are some very very good ones, there are some very very bad ones. So until you are well grounded in Scripture, stay away from them.
Now you need your tools, and you need the proper tools to do the job. They are, in order of importance:
1. Prayer, prayer, and more prayer. Talk to the Lord and ask Him to help you to understand just what your are reading. Trust in the Holy Spirit to guide you in your studies, believe me, He will. But also understand, the vast majority of Scripture is self-explanatory. There are no “hidden” meanings, there are no “Bible codes,” and there is no need for extra or special revelation. Just read the Bible, and read it as you would any other book. There will be parts that are literal, parts that are figurative such as analogies, parts that are poetic, parts that are prophetic, and parts that are simply historical. And they are all obvious to the reader.
2. A basic understanding of biblical hermeneutics. A big word that simply means interpretation, or proper understanding. The basic rules of good biblical hermeneutics are:
A) The Bible interprets the Bible. You don't have to go to an outside source to interpret it for you.
B) The explicit passages interpret the implicit passages. If an implicit passages seems to contradict an explicit passage, understand that it doesn't really contradict. You are simply interpreting the implicit passage incorrectly.
C) Context is everything. To understand a particular passage of Scripture, look at the various contexts in which it is written. Look at the immediate context first. By this I mean the passages immediately before the passage, and those immediately after it. Next, look at the extended context. Do this by reading the entire chapter, and/or the entire book. Third, look at the cultural and historical context. What would the passage most obviously mean to someone from the same culture and time period within which it was written? Obviously this is going to take some dedication and some work. But just as with building a good sturdy fence, if you want something that will last and withstand attacks against it, you're going to have to work hard and do it properly.
D) And finally, understand that there are no contradictions (if you find one, read it again, and follow rules A-C); and there are no real errors. Yes, to be honest, you may find some minor textual variants, however, they are, as I said, minor, and they will not change the accuracy of any biblical doctrine.
3. You will need the proper tools. It is always helpful to have a knowledge of biblical Greek and Hebrew, but that is not always possible. Fortunately, there are a number of good reference works available – many online and free for download – that are available. First, a good word concordance, especially a Strong's or a Young's concordance. Both are geared for the King James Version, but that should not be a problem. It is also helpful to have at hand a good lexicon and/or expository dictionary. Two of the best are the Thayer's Greek Lexicon and the Vine's Expository Dictionary of Greek and Hebrew Words. A good Bible dictionary (such as the Holman's Bible Dictionary), a good Bible handbook (Unger's, Halley's, or Smith's), a good Bible encyclopedia (such as Nelson's) and possible a Bible Atlas (such as Moody's). All of these tools will help you to understand the original meaning of the various words found in Scripture, as well as the various customs, cultures, peoples, and lands of the Bible. This will aid you immensely in understanding the historical contexts of the Bible.
4. And last, you must actually pick up those tools and use them properly. You must pick up your Bible, and read it and study it daily, and do so properly if you want to be well grounded in it. Many people read their Bible through the focus of their own biases, their own preconceived ideas and presuppositions. Remember this final rule of proper Bible reading and studying. Write it down on the very first page of your Bible. Never forget it. And that final rule is: “Never change the meaning of Scripture to fit what you already believe, but rather, change what you believe to fit the Scripture.”
By understanding and following the basic outlines described in this article, you can have a strong, utilitarian, long lasting and protective fence; or you can have a strong, utilitarian, long lasting, and protective grasp of the Bible; or both!