Interpreting the Bible: Big Rocks Go in First!

rocksingobletSeveral years ago, our then minister, Buddy Jones, preached a powerful sermon. He begin with a large, clear glass. Maybe it was a brandy snifter.

He began by talking about how busy we all are. He placed some large smooth rocks in the glass, saying these represent our faith and family. And then some smaller rocks representing our jobs and such. He then added some smaller rocks that represented lesser priorities, all the while discussing how we try to squeeze so much into a little space. He then added some sand, and finally some water–up to the very brim.

We were surprised at how much he was able to fit in there. He asked the audience, so what’s the lesson?

Well, we were stunned, because preachers just don’t ask questions, you know! But a few courageous souls tried, most saying something like how hard it is to squeeze everything in.

Buddy said, no, the lesson is—THE BIG ROCKS GO IN FIRST!

It was a very valuable life lesson. It’s also a valuable lesson in hermeneutics. You see, we sometimes we get so lost in the details and the grammar and the culture studies that we forget our priorities. Some rocks are bigger than others, and if we don’t put them in first, they’ll just won’t fit at all!

Let’s take a step back and see why this is critically important. I refer the reader to a tract on hermeneutics by Church of Christ minister Gene Taylor, that’s very typical of Church of Christ thought. Among the rules of interpretation he suggests are–

10. Observe the proper balance of scriptural truth.

11. Let plain passages interpret difficult passages.

Now, these rules aren’t so much wrong as dangerous. For example, “proper balance” is an entirely subjective determination. If I think one interpretation is weighted a bit too much toward the “faith only” view, I should perhaps “balance” that view by pressing a salvation-by-works agenda.

But I can’t decide what’s “balanced” without deciding in advance what the answer should be! In other words, balance cannot be anything but the interpreter’s biases. After all, nowhere do the scriptures suggest that they are to present a balanced truth. Indeed, in many places, we are told that the results will be extreme!

(Matt. 13:44-46)  “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

Jesus counsels us to go to extremes! Maybe some truths are balanced and some aren’t? I don’t know. I do know that I can’t start with the non-scriptural assumption that I should be looking for balance.

Rather, Jesus tells us that some things are first and require absolute commitment–such as the Kingdom of Heaven. You see, the big rocks go in first. If there’s room for pebbles, sand, and water when we’re done, fine–but we aren’t to balance rocks against sand.

Just so, letting “plain” passages interpret “difficult” passages can be a very sound approach. But the danger is that what’s plain to me may be difficult to you. I have no problem with the verses teaching a personal indwelling of the Spirit. Some are troubled by that concept. Those verses are plain to me, difficult to others. The test is, in application, subjective and hence useless.

Again, the solution is to look at the size of the rocks. Make the small rocks squeeze in amongst the big rocks, not the other way around. Find the great, overriding principles of the Bible, and never, ever vary from them.

The great, overriding principles are those that Bible say are the great, overriding principles. The love of God, the gospel, our call to love others, and so forth.  I’ve tried in earlier posts to point out the principles that the Bible emphasizes, and so avoid sheer  subjectivity.

Now, I’ll admit that this principle is subject to abuse, as you and I may well disagree over which principles are the “big rocks,” but at least our theories can be tested by scripture. Show me the verses making your rule big, and I’ll show you mine, and we can talk through our disagreements.

However, if you claim your verse is plain and I say it’s obscure, there’s really just not much left to say.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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