Let’s start out with a fairly basic question:
“Do we need to interpret or study the Bible?”
Some of you may be asking this or have asked it before, because we often have felt or heard someone say, “we don’t need to study the Bible, we just need to read it and do what it says”, or that “people tend to make things overcomplicated”.
And there’s a lot of truth in this.
We do need to aim for the simple meaning of the Bible when we read it and above all the reason for reading the Bible is so that we can put what we learn into practice. The difficulty we face with a passage like Phil 2:3 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (NRSV) is not understanding it but living it!
Also there is a real danger in digging so deep when we’re studying that we muddy the clear simple message of the Bible. It’s probably important to say right here that the aim of Bible study is NOT “uniqueness”. We’re not trying to find something that no one else has ever found before and “out-clever” the world.
As we said, the aim of Bible study is simply to get at the plain meaning of the passage. This does come from reading, but at the same time we can’t simply read the Bible at face-value for 2 reasons:
Nature of the reader (because of who we are):
Whether we like it or not whenever we read something we interpret as we read. By that I mean, when we read something we imagine what’s going on –we try to make sense of it. However, when we try to understand/interpret the Bible we are influenced by all our past experiences, culture and associations. For example: when we read that people prayed we often view them either standing or sitting with their heads bowed and eyes closed (because that’s what we do!), whilst often prayers were done with eyes open, hands outstretched and head lifted back. When we hear the word ‘flesh’ in our language today we think of our physical body, whilst Paul often uses it of our sinful nature. Choosing to not interpret is just not an option, we can only choose whether to do it well (and try to make our understanding closer to God’s intent) or do it poorly.
Nature of the Bible (because of what the Bible is)
Just take a moment to think about what the Bible is… It’s the Word of God written by humans throughout history. It’s amazing, because there’s an awesome balance here! Because the Bible is God’s word it is eternally relevant – its message speaks to us throughout all time. But because it was written by humans for humans, God’s words were expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of the people of the time and was written to address their problems/questions.Because of this we have to realise that the Bible isn’t always speaking directly to us. Now wait a second, what do I mean by that, because didn’t we just say that the Bible is eternally relevant? Well 1 Corinthians is a letter written to people who lived in 1st Century Corinth right? So while the Bible is God’s word to us, it was first God’s word to them! 1 Corinthians was a letter to them, written in their language, in words they would understand, in a way they would understand, about their questions/problems. For example read 1 Cor 13:4-6. We commonly use these beautiful words to describe what love is and you’ll often hear them in weddings (I used them for mine!). They do describe love, but what we have to remember is that they are the aspects of love that the Corinthians needed to hear. A read through 1Corinthians shows us that the 1Cor 13:4-6 matches up with the issues the Corinthians had. It is not a complete description of love, if these verses were in Philippians for example, they might look quite different (but still be true).
So for Corinthians to have any meaning for us we have to learn to read it as they would have read it (not try to read it as if it was Paul’s letter to the Adelaidians!). And because we are so far removed from them in time, plus we have a different language, different ways of thinking and aren’t familiar with their problems, we have to study the Bible so that we can hear it as they heard it. Once we know what it said to them we can work out what it is saying to us.
How to Study:
So there are two tasks in Bible study: we have to first understand the ‘then and there’ – what it meant to the original hearers, and then we have to hear God’s word ‘here and now’ – hearing that same message in our lives today.
This does NOT mean that we’re making Bible study so complicated that it’s out of reach for most of us. Bible study is simply reading the Bible but also asking the right questions as we read so that we properly understand ‘then and there’ and ‘here and now’. The questions we have to ask are pretty common sense and we’ll go through them in our next post.
The aim of Bible study: to understand the simple meaning of a passage
The 2 tasks in Bible study: understand the ‘then and there’, and then discern the ‘here and now’
Bible study is reading the Bible and asking the right questions as you read
What questions do I ask? Wait till next week!!
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
“If you come with a fixed, set in stone preconceived idea your bible reading will only reinforce that concept”.
True words that are easily said but harder hard to respond to. We can all too easily recognise the biases and weakness of others but identifying the mote in our own eye can be challenging. But reading the Bible yourself is a valuable thing as part of a life of faith, so how do we do it without fooling ourselves?
To quote an interesting (and challenging) book by McKnight “The Reformation’s best and most dangerous, revolutionary idea was putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary Christians.” He goes on to speak of the importance of education and understanding the prism through which the Bible is read in order to avoid the chaos of millions of interpretations.
We come to every conversation, every interaction and every reading with experiences and knowledge that shape our expectations and perceptions. How I read the Bible depends on who I am at that point in time. This prompts the question from our opening thought: how do you know the meaning you find is the Biblically intended one, rather than one that is purely defined by your preconceptions? No amount of tools will open the safe of our mind if we refuse to open the doors just a little. There are tools that can improve our ability to understand what the text means (versus what we want it to mean).
Books like Osborne’s “The hermeneutical spiral: a comprehensive introduction to biblical interpretation” help identify our particular preconceptions by forcing us to think about how we approach the text (rather than diving head-first into the Biblical text). Regarding our preconceptions he says,
…we need to ‘bracket’ these ideas to a degree and allow the text to deepen or at times challenge and even change those already established ideas. As readers, we want to place ourselves in front of the text (and allow it to address us) rather than behind it (and force it to go where we want). The reader’s background and ideas are important in the study of biblical truth; however, this must be used to study meaning rather than to create meaning that is not there.
Christ was a radical preacher who demanded change and commitment from those who heard him. The scholars and leaders of his day were outraged by his rejection of centuries of preconceptions and his approach to their own social mores. When we come to the word we should feel challenged, not comfortable. If it doesn’t hurt a little sometimes then we probably just aren’t doing it right…we are just resting on stone like preconceptions.
Translation is not an easy task. Take a moment to consider the difficulty of translating a text which is central to the faith of millions. Striking a balance between literalness (however you define this) and readability must be hard. Further, every reader familiar with prior works is critical because their favourite rendering has been ruined.
Jerome produced the basis of the Latin Vulgate, an immense work given the proliferation of versions and Latin copies which existed when he commenced. When urged by the then current Pope to do the task he responded:
“You urge me to revise the Old Latin version, and, as it were, to sit in judgment on the copies of the Scriptures that are now scattered throughout the world; and, inasmuch as they differ from one another, you would have me decide which of them agree with the original. The labor is one of love, but at the same time it is both perilous and presumptuous—for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all …. Is there anyone learned or unlearned, who, when he takes the volume in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?”
Apparently his concerns were well founded. After his work began to be published he met serious opposition but apparently he referred “to his detractors as “two-legged asses” or “yelping dogs”—persons who “think that ignorance is identical with holiness.”
The KJV translators noted they expected to be helped by King James against “calumniations and hard interpretations of other men” and furthermore remarked that “if, on the one side, we shall be traduced by Popish persons at home or abroad, who therefore will malign us…or if, on the other side, we shall be maligned by self-conceited Brethren, who run their own ways, and give liking unto nothing, but what is framed by themselves, and hammered on their anvil…”
The reality is that few of us have the knowledge and skills to assess textual variations and translate from the original languages. Pause a second to contemplate the relatively thankless task performed by others.
“Once upon a time…” these cliche words start many of our classic Western stories. There are lots of similarities between the kinds of stories we are familiar with and the Biblical narratives, but there are also some key differences.
In reality, the Biblical narratives are just stories. Yes they’re true stories, but at a basic level we can read them just the same way that we might read a modern story. They share the same basic features of any story: characters, plot, and plot resolution.
Biblical narratives are a bit different to modern stories in several respects though. In some ways they are more like a play or movie in their construction, as they tend to develop in short scenes that only have a few characters in view at any one time. These short scenes combine to tell the larger story, like acts in a play or scenes in a movie. Also, unlike modern stories, they don’t spend much time in visual descriptions of characters or their surroundings. Any visual details that are included in a Biblical narrative are therefore more important than they would be in a typical modern story.
Like a Shakespearean play, a lot of the important details of the story are communicated in the discussions between characters. Often the details that are most important will be told several times (e.g. the repeated descriptions of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, or the way the Cornelius story from Acts 10 is fully retold by Peter in Acts 11). The conversations are central and often the very first thing said is the most important.
The power of Biblical narratives is that they show how God’s principles can be demonstrated in the lives of ordinary believers. That said, we must also bear in mind that just because a Biblical character did something, doesn’t necessarily mean that action is something to copy. For example, Gideon putting out his fleece to test God in Judges 6 isn’t something believers are told they should do. Gideon’s actions aren’t encouraged or commended, in fact it was a demonstration that he didn’t fully trust God yet and God just patiently humoured him.
Currently the traditional Christadelphian Bible Reading Planner is taking us through some exciting narratives in the books of Samuel. Try and keep some of these thoughts in mind as you read through the stories about the exploits of David.
The Bible is more of a library than a book! It contains literature of all different genres and types. Just as you wouldn’t read a novel the same way that you read your new employment contract, we can’t read every passage of scripture the same way. We need to pay attention to the genre of the passage we’re looking at and make sure we appreciate the tools that particular genre uses to communicate. One writer uses the analogy of a board game:
… there are different “game” rules involved in the interpretation of the different kinds of biblical literature. The author has played his “game,” has sought to convey his meaning, under the rules covering the particular literary form he used. Unless we know those rules, we will almost certainly misinterpret his meaning. If we interpret a parable (Luke 16:19–31) as if it were narrative, or if we interpret poetry (Judg. 5) as if it were narrative, we will err. Similarly, if we interpret a narrative such as the resurrection of Jesus (Matt. 28:1–10) as a parable, we will also err (1 Cor. 15:12–19).(1)
How do all the different Bible genres work? We’re going to explore the main ones in our next few posts. First up we’ll look at historical narratives, the main genre of the Old Testament.
(1) Thomas, Robert L., A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules, (Michigan: Baker Academic, 1994), 77
Continuing our exploration of Bible study methods, we’ll be looking at genre next. Here’s a quote that explains the need to understand genre.
One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.
To interpret properly the “then and there” of the biblical texts, one must not only know some general rules that apply to all the words of the Bible, but one also needs to learn the special rules that apply to each of these literary forms (genres). The way God communicates the divine word to us in the “here and now” will often differ from one form to another. For example, we need to know how a psalm, a form often addressed to God, functions as God’s word to us, and how certain psalms differ from others, and how all of them differ from “the laws,” which were often addressed to people in cultural situations no longer in existence. How do such “laws” speak to us, and how do they differ from the moral “laws,” which are always valid in all circumstances? Such are the questions the dual nature of the Bible forces on us.
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Fourth Edition.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 26–27.