Last time, we looked at some key values that help us arrive at biblical truth. In what follows, we’ll consider three ways of figuring out what to believe. Simply put, our goal is to grasp New Testament Christianity and live it out today. We pursue this goal through Bible study (exegesis), doctrinal synthesis, and evaluating competing doctrines to figure out which better fits with authorial intent.
Exegesis is the discipline of interpreting a portion of Scripture. The goal is to lead out from the Bible its meaning rather than read into it what we think it should say. As restorationists, we should approach exegesis with humility rather than smugness. We don’t sit over the text but under it. We don’t tell it what we want to believe; instead, we listen to it, allowing it to challenge what we already think. We don’t change Scripture; it changes us. We welcome the Bible to mess with our theology, recognizing that what the Bible actually says always takes precedence over our tidy systematic understanding. Good exegesis is our best defense against the all too common practice of taking verses out of context while building our doctrinal understanding. Furthermore, we invite God into the process from the beginning, believing that His spirit doesn’t merely reside beneath the surface of Scripture when He inspired the original writers, but it hovers over the words on the page as well, aiding us while we read. Wouldn’t it be negligent to read God’s book and not petition Him for illumination in the process? For this reason, prayer and Bible study go hand in hand. We ask God to teach us, change us, convict us, and encourage us as we read.
Even so, we should not imagine that because God helps us to understand that we can excuse ourselves from doing any work on our end. Bible study is historical in nature. Although it’s important to ask, “What does this mean to me today?” this is not the best starting point. Instead, we should first sort out how the original audience would have understood the portion of Scripture we are studying. This means we need to attune our ears to hear the words and understand the concepts the way they would have. This may include learning their language, their culture, their geography, their political situation, their history, etc. Our goal is to avoid anachronisms and misunderstandings by resisting the temptation to read from our own contemporary perspective and by familiarizing ourselves with the worldview of the original audience. Here is a guideline to aid in exegesis:
- Ask God for help to illuminate Scripture through His spirit.
- Establish the text. Check for manuscript variants. It is best to read in the original languages, but if this is not possible, then compare multiple literal translations. Good translations will footnote any significant differences.
- Don’t presume that what you’ve always thought a text means is what it actually means. Sit under text, not over it. Draw the meaning out of the text, rather than reading your ideas into it.
- Read charitably. Assume the writer is not self-contradicting or proposing an absurdity. Don’t approach the Scriptures from skepticism, but from humility.
- Be honest. Let the Bible challenge your theology and sensibilities.
- If possible, determine the reason for writing this book as well as the audience to whom it was originally intended.
- Interpret the text according to genre (law, history, poetry, prophecy, etc.)
- Interpret within the biblical context. How does this verse fit within the paragraph, the chapter, the section, the book, other books written by the same person, and all of Scripture?
- Interpret within the historical context. Familiarize yourself with the world of the author so that you hear the text like the original audience did.
- Determine how the New Testament uses quotations and allusions from the Old Testament.
- Consult good commentaries. Watch out for overly skeptical commentaries that focus on criticizing rather than understanding the Bible. If possible, read multiple commentaries to see what various scholars say about a text. org has some good free resources.
Now we come to putting together a number of verses on a subject to build an overall doctrinal understanding. Once again, the restorationist begins with humility. We do not presume that our traditional understanding of a particular doctrine is infallible and then find ways to interpret the Bible to fit our mold. Rather, we begin with the admission that we might be wrong and we need God’s help to think His thoughts after Him. Sometimes Scripture resists strict systematic structures; other times, we discover a truth so simple that we can easily express its substance in a short phrase. A particular understanding may even elude us until Jesus returns and we know even as also we are known (1 Cor 13:9-12).
The goal of doctrinal synthesis is to arrive at a truly biblical understanding of a subject. As a result, we begin by collecting all of the relevant texts on that subject. As we form our understanding, we seek a position that affords the greatest explanatory scope, takes into account developments that occur within the history redemption, and fits with the overall character of God as revealed in Scripture. Community is incredibly important in this process. Of course, individual Bible study has its place as well, but we would do well to present our ideas to other biblically-committed individuals and groups for analysis and critique. Finally, restorationists are not finished until they apply their understanding to reality. What good is it to arrive at a comprehensive and robust doctrine of forgiveness and then harbor bitterness towards an offender? Our goal is not only to recover authentic New Testament Christianity, but also to live it out today by God’s grace and in the power of His spirit. Here is a brief list of suggestions for formulating a cohesive doctrine:
- Ask God for help in showing you how to put Scripture together.
- Be willing to change if the preponderance of the biblical evidence turns out to challenge what you currently believe. The truth has nothing to fear.
- Don’t insist on figuring everything out. It’s better to live with uncertainty when it comes to a particular doctrine or practice than to force yourself to adopt a position that you know is flawed.
- Collect all the verses on the subject. This is best achieved by reading through the entire Bible with your topic of study in mind. Alternatively, the internet or Bible software can aid you in gathering the relevant texts.
- Take into consideration the history of redemption. In other words, don’t insist that something must remain unchanged from an earlier part of the Bible to a latter section.
- Work to arrive at a position that has the greatest explanatory scope. Simpler is usually better.
- Include others in your study. Invite criticism of your position. Iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17).
- Figure out how to live this out today. What good are your beliefs if you don’t apply them to life?
Even once we arrive at a doctrinal position, it’s important to take into consideration both what others have said throughout church history as well as what Christians are saying today. By comparing what we’ve come up with to the other options out there, we can see where we went wrong or gain confidence in how our understanding outshines the alternatives. We must be careful to avoid the genetic fallacy: assuming an idea is worthy or absurd on the basis of its source. We evaluate doctrinal positions on the basis of their merits and in the light of Scripture. This is the true Berean approach: neither accepting nor rejecting a message until we first check it against the Scriptures to see if it is true (Acts 17:11).
Here, more than anywhere, restorationists diverge from so many other Protestants. Because we do not define ourselves by a particular creed or statement of faith, we are free to consider alternative theories; whereas a Presbyterian, for example, has to affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith from 1647. When comparing competing understandings, it’s important to have some set of objective criteria to aid us in our task. Otherwise, fondness for tradition, a desire to prove it wrong, or other emotional concerns could easily guide us awry. These criteria are not likely to be absolute but rather a list of preferences. For example, we should lean towards a belief if we find it has advocates earlier in church history, has more supporting verses, has a broader explanatory scope, etc., than the alternative(s). Below is a list of preferences that can help when comparing multiple competing doctrines.
- The doctrine that has more supporting verses is better.
- The doctrine that can be derived directly from Scripture rather than assumed and then supported using verses is better.
- The doctrine that leaves fewer difficult texts to be explained is better.
- The doctrine that coheres with the historical context rather than reading later ideas into the text is better.
- The doctrine that is older is better.
- The doctrine that has a broader explanatory scope is better.
Though these three—exegesis, doctrinal synthesis, and doctrinal comparison—may seem intimidating, we should not throw our hands up and defer to the “experts.” In many ways, this mentality is precisely what put Christianity in the mess we are in today. Instead, let’s humbly study God’s book and revel in probing His mind as He has revealed it to us in Scripture. In the end, Christ does not say we will stand next to our pastor, radio teacher, college professor, or favorite author on the Day of Judgment. Let’s take responsibility for our faith and yet remain willing to hear what others have to say.
 Good literal translations include the ESV, NASB, NRSV, and HCSB. Translations with good notes indicating when the translators had difficult decisions to make include the NET and NAB.
 If Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), an astronomer, thought of his own research into God’s general revelation written on the book of nature as thinking God’s thoughts after Him, how much more should we who study His special revelation seek likewise to discover God’s thoughts rather than merely confirming our own?