Foundational Issues: The Problem of Biblical Interpretation
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved
a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and
for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (Jas. 3:1)
One of the problems with much Christian teaching today is the absence of a general framework for interpreting the Bible. Far too many Christian teachers and writers try to explain and apply passages from the Bible without providing an interpretive framework, despite the fact that a proper framework for interpretation is foundational to responsible, biblical teaching. Before Wilkinson’s claims in Jabez can be profitably examined, then, we need to take a brief look at the issue of biblical interpretation. By identifying Wilkinson’s mistaken interpretive approach as the basis for much of his reasoning, it will be better understood why he reaches so many erroneous conclusions. After all, if the source is contaminated, then whatever comes from that source will likewise be tainted.
To survey even the most basic issues involved in the interpretation of texts is far beyond the scope of this short book. Attempting to summarize the multitude of approaches to biblical interpretation seems similarly futile. Instead, then, we will merely sketch Wilkinson’s approach to interpreting the Bible and contrast it with what is sometimes called the “salvation history” method of biblical interpretation.
At the outset, it should be acknowledged that Wilkinson never sets forth any rules for interpreting the Bible. Our description of Wilkinson’s interpretive method is thus based on statements he makes in Jabez that assume or imply that method. We have sketched this manner of reading the Bible below.
To coin a phrase at this point, Wilkinson’s method of interpreting the Bible can be referred to as a “personal-practical application” approach (hereafter referred to as PPA). On this view, the Bible is thought to be a practical guide for daily living that can be mined for nuggets of wisdom. These bits of wisdom might concern things such as how to know God’s will, experiencing God’s best for one’s life, the application of spiritual principles in solving life difficulties, and unleashing personal potential for success. This is not to say that Wilkinson wouldn’t acknowledge other uses for the Bible, but for him it seems to function primarily as a personal resource for receiving God’s abundant blessings through the work of Christian ministry. The PPA approach appears to guide Wilkinson’s use of the Bible as he lays down his strategy for spiritual success in the pages of Jabez.
For example, Wilkinson tells the reader, “I want to show you just how dramatically each of Jabez’s requests can release something miraculous in your life.” Elsewhere he says:
If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, “Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.” When I talk to presidents of companies, I often talk to them about this particular mind-set. When Christian executives ask me, “Is it right for me to ask God for more business?” my response is, “Absolutely!” If you’re doing your business God’s way, it’s not only right to ask for more, but He is waiting for you to ask.
Near the end of the book, Wilkinson challenges the reader to:
...make the Jabez prayer for blessing part of the daily fabric of your life. To do that, I encourage you to follow unwaveringly the plan outlined here for the next thirty days. By the end of that time, you’ll be noticing significant changes in your life, and the prayer will be on its way to becoming a treasured, lifelong habit.
Similar examples could be cited at length, but the fact that Wilkinson endorses the PPA approach should be evident.
In contrast to the PPA approach
stands what was referred to above as the “salvation history” method of biblical
interpretation (hereafter referred to as SH).
Much has been written about this approach to interpreting the Bible, but in a
nutshell it can be described as follows.
While not denying or downplaying the many practical elements of biblical
teaching, the SH approach views the Bible chiefly as a record of God’s
redeeming activity culminating in Jesus Christ. On this view, the Bible’s main story line
explains how God’s plan of salvation unfolded over time. This plan came to fruition in the life,
death, and resurrection of
For example, Wilkinson asks: “How do I know that [the prayer of Jabez] will significantly impact you? Because of my experience and the testimony of hundreds of others around the world with whom I’ve shared these principles.” Elsewhere, speaking of the rapid growth of the World Teach Bible faculty that he is helping to develop, Wilkinson asserts:
Just by looking at what is happening, I can assure you that God still answers those who have a loyal heart and pray the Jabez prayer...One national missions leader told me that World Teach has had the fastest launch of any Christian ministry in history. Humanly speaking, this kind of growth is unexplainable...I don’t know what you call that, but I have always called it the miracle of Jabez.
Though it involves some biblical components, Wilkinson’s approach to discerning God’s will is of great concern to us. It is troubling because it threatens the unique authority of the Bible and the Bible’s central role in the lives of Christians. The nature of the Bible’s authority has been hotly debated during the history of Christianity precisely because so much is at stake in this issue. However unintentional it may be, Wilkinson’s manner of ascertaining God’s will for the distribution of His blessings contradicts the Bible’s teaching that it alone serves as a reliable guide for understanding the will of God for His creatures.
The flaws in Wilkinson’s method
of interpreting the Bible can be seen in the way he handles the genealogy
wherein Jabez’s petition to God is found.
From Wilkinson’s perspective, this genealogy is virtually
dispensable. Wilkinson does mention that
Jabez’s prayer is contained within this Old Testament family tree, but he
fails to grasp the genealogy’s fundamental purpose—tracing the lineage of
faithful Jews that would eventually result in the birth of
Wilkinson misinterprets this
passage because he mistakenly believes that Jabez is concerned, on a purely
individual level, with how he can enhance his ability to serve God by means
of an expanded territory and protection from evil. If one recognizes Jabez’s place in the course
of salvation history, however, his prayer will be viewed much differently. In that case, it will be understood that
Jabez did not make his request of God as a grab for greater personal
influence. Rather, Jabez petitioned God
out of a desire to see the Old Testament promise of a Messiah come to fruition
through resources provided by God and means ordained by God. The resources were more real estate and
safety from bodily harm, and the means was the continuation of the lineage that
would result in the birth of
misapplies Jabez’s prayer because he doesn’t see that God’s gracious response
in 1 Chronicles is to a particular person at a
particular point in salvation history in a particular land—a land that was
bound up with God’s promises to the Jews. Previously, God had promised the patriarch
Abraham and his descendants occupation of a specified area of land as part of
His plan to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. At the time in
For Wilkinson, Jabez’s petition and its results function as a standard of God’s response to prayer requests without regard to time or place. Yet it was just shown that such an application of Jabez’s prayer is unwarranted. Many passages in the Old Testament that describe God’s dealings with His people at a particular time and place, such as the prayer of Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4, are not to be understood as operative for present-day Christians. From the standpoint of proper biblical interpretation, it is naive to think that an Old Testament teaching can simply be plucked out of its context in the course of salvation history and plopped down in the historically, culturally, and religiously removed setting of present-day North American Christianity. This lack of regard for context when interpreting the Bible fuels Wilkinson’s erroneous manner of understanding and applying the prayer of Jabez.
 All Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.
 Jn. 10:35; 2 Thes. 2:15; 2 Tim. 2:15.
 Often, those using the PPA approach are determined to find “relevant” teaching in the Bible. There are many problems with this search for relevance, not the least of which is that it tends to convey the message that the Bible is filled with irrelevant information that has to be endured and sifted through in order to get at the truly helpful material. Moreover, those practicing this approach usually understand ‘relevance’ on the terms of our therapy-obsessed, corporate-managerial, entertainment-saturated culture, rather than forming a biblical view of relevance.
 Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2000), p. 15.
 The Prayer of Jabez, p. 31. Several questions arise at this point. What if the value of one’s investment portfolios increases because one invests in corporations with big profit margins but who engage in highly immoral business practices? If one is a Christian, shouldn’t one apply a moral litmus test to determine whether or not one ought to invest in a particular company? What is “God’s way of doing business?” Does the Bible provide a blueprint for running a business in a capitalist society in a way that honors God? These and related issues need to be carefully thought through before jumping headlong into “expanding one’s borders” via stock trading and investment strategies.
 Jabez, p. 86.
 Of particular interest in this regard is the story Wilkinson tells about his first “Jabez appointment.” (Jabez, pp. 37-39.) The way he describes this episode is telling and speaks volumes about his approach to handling the Bible. Notice he never inquires whether or not Terry is a Christian, nor does he ask about possible sin in Terry’s life that might have led to the breakdown of the marriage. Instead, he simply shares “several key biblical principles for a happy marriage” with Terry. Moreover, just prior to this incident Wilkinson had prayed: “Lord...I want to be your servant...Send somebody who needs me.” (Jabez, p. 37.) Wilkinson is to be commended for wanting to serve the Lord, but Terry first and foremost needed Jesus and His gift of salvation, not Wilkinson or a set of abstract biblical principles. Apart from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, Terry could not have confessed his sin in a proper manner and set out on a life of obedience to God’s will for his marriage. Contrary to Wilkinson, the Bible is not a “handy reference manual” for repairing damaged marriages or anything else. The principles in Scripture relevant to marriage can only be correctly understood and applied when they are seen in light of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Neither does the Bible present a “quick fix” for marital problems—salvaging a marriage on the brink of divorce requires much more than an hour of counseling and a handful of therapeutic principles. Thus we find the ending to Wilkinson’s anecdote here to be suspiciously neat and tidy.