Author: Ron Graham
Using Our Brains
—The human mind’s role in interpreting Scripture
In this lesson we think about the role of the human mind in using the scriptures as our authority in religion. We are not considering here the minds of the men who wrote the scriptures, but rather the minds, including our own, of those who are readers of the scriptures.
1 Five Requirements
Human thought and opinion contributes in five main ways to our understanding and obedience of God's inspired word. These may be summarised as:
- (1) Recognition of the particular books that rightly belong in the Bible.
- (2) Evaluating the hundreds of available hand-copied manuscripts to establish the original text.
- (3) Translating the text into our language,
- (4) Interpreting the original writer's meaning and intention,
- (5) Making appropriate applications to ourselves.
We rely almost entirely on scholars for the first three. The work of scholars in these three areas is one of the greatest wonders of the world. Without the work they have done, and continue to do, the scriptures would not be available to us.
2 Applying the Scriptures to Self
We need, however, to take responsibility ourselves for the last two requirements in the list above, especially number 5. Teachers can help, as I try to do on this website, however we must apply our individual minds to the scriptures to ensure we understand God’s word correctly and are being taught correctly.
Most of all, God expects us to apply the scriptures intelligently to ourselves.
God says, "My thoughts are higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9). But he also says, "Come now and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18).
God wants us to put our our brains to work on what he says, so we will apply it to ourselves. We don't want to be like those of whom God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, "You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive." (Isaiah 6:9-10).
3 Using Our Brains
The question, "How do these words apply to me?" is one that requires us to make diligent use of our brains. "Examine yourselves whether you are in the faith" (2Corinthians 13:5).
Perhaps because it demands considerable thought, self application of the scriptures is often neglected. So we may hear frequent lipservice to the inerrancy of the Scriptures and to their sole authority in our faith and its practice. Vigorous thoughtful application in personal life, however, may not be apparent.
Note —LIPSERVICE: Lipservice means saying “YES” with your mouth but saying “NO” in your heart and by your actions. It is honouring God with your lips when your heart is far from him.
Of course sometimes people are discouraged from thinking for themselves. Dogma and creeds, written or unwritten, may stifle individual freedom to examine scriptural questions, making people reluctant to openly examine matters for themselves. God, however, expects us to ignore these discouragements, and to use our own brains, which he gave us, to make our own application of his word.
4 Not as Hard as it Sounds
Generally speaking, it requires little education or intelligence to work out whether and in what way a Bible passage is applicable to you. Let's look at a few examples, selected almost at random. How would you personally apply these verses to yourself?
- "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
- "You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3).
- "Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters, whose names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah" (Numbers 26:33).
- "You shall eat the flesh of your sons and daughters" (Deuteronomy 28:53).
- "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:20).
- "Bear one another's burdens and thus fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2)
- "Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and the books, especially the parchments" (2Timothy 4:13).
- "Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow his steps" (1Peter 2:21).
I doubt you would have any trouble working out which of these verses applies to you, and what sort of application you should make. You can see the difference between a command a prediction. You can understand how some commands were for certain people, but others apply to everyone.
You would not, for instance, think that you should name your children only with names ending in -ah, nor would you think that you should fetch Paul's cloak. On the other hand, you would see immediately that you should recognize God as your Creator, that you should help others with their burdens, and that you should follow the example of Christ.
5 Rules Aren't Needed
Some have attempted to codify the principles involved in deciding how, if at all, a verse applies to oneself. These range from complex (and possibly dubious) rules to simple ideas that are helpful, but do rather state the obvious. Instead of letting rules get in the way, just ask a few simple questions such as...
- Is there something in this passage that I need to believe?
- Is something promised that I can hope for?
- Is there a warning that I should heed?
- Is something commanded that I ought to obey?
- Is there an example that I could follow?
- Is there a prayer that I could pray?
Most passages in the Bible can be understood and applied with a simple approach like that. We just have to use our brains. Let us be encouraged to do so. The Psalmist speaks of the blessedness of one whose "delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law he meditates day and night" (Psalms 1:1-3).