Haven’t you ever wondered why there are so many different ways Scripture is interpreted? Why is it that two perfectly capable teachers can come to opposite beliefs? The first problem that we all have is our presuppositions. We all start in different places, therefore, we end in different places. It is true that our starting point (our presupposition) causes us to end at a specific place. In addition to presuppositions, the rules of interpretation that we follow are sometimes different. We all interpret Scripture whether we like to think we do or not. Interpretation is simply trying to understand what the author of the text we are reading is saying. We interpret everything we read whether secular writings or scriptural writings. If you hear someone who is teaching or read an article or book that says or writes something like the following: “I just read the text and the Holy Spirit tells me what it means.” You should immediately check out everything that this teacher says or writes. In short, those kinds of sentences should cause your mind to throw up a “red flag of caution” that screams at you: “LISTENER/READER BEWARE!”
I think it is fair to say that when God spoke to us through the written word by inspiring those who wrote, that he only meant one thing by what he said. It was plain to those who first heard it in the culture it was given. They may not have obeyed what it said, but that does not mean they did not understand it.
There has been in recent years a development of what is called the “theological interpretation of Scripture.” One of its tenants is that:
Text of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the origial author. (Daniel J. Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture. 200.
Rather Scripture has multiple meanings, which are referred to as “complex senses” that are given by God. (Treier. 200). This may be an update on the idea of the “reader response” method of understanding Scripture.
Based on this presupposition that “God had a meaning when he inspired the original authors,” we could say that the meaning then is the meaning now.
Several years ago I was having a conversation with a family member who was adimate that his point of view about Scripture was correct. In the conversation, I suggested that he had come to that belief becasue of his presuppositons. To which he responded. “I don’t have any presuppositions!: To which I replied, “What you just said is your first presupposition.
We all have them. Below is a list of ten reasons why it is difficult to read Scripture. I’m sure there are more, but at least there are ten.
Why is this the case? Why is it difficult for us to interpret Scripture in the twenty-first century? Here they are with some commentary on each.
- We do not understand the historical, cultural, and geographic context in which the text is set. To understand the text’s external context is extremely important.
We spend most of our time in what has come to be called devotional reading of Scripture. We have come to believe that what we understand in our devotional reading is what the text actually means. We have not been taught to look at the historical and cultural background into which these stories and accounts were first introduced. We have assumed that when we read, that what we think the author is saying is in fact what he actually meant for those to whom he first wrote. Because we have fallen into such a trap, Scripture has become monotone or in many cases multi-toned with so many different meanings that it becomes confusing.
- We are unfamiliar with the kind of literature that the author used to convey his or her message, spoken or written.
We are often not aware that there is a variety of literature that God chose for his writers to use when communicating his Word. Because of our inadequacies in this area, we are prone to make God say something he did not say, because we literalize that which is figurative or we spiritualize that which is literal. The main types of literature in Scripture are narrative, covenant-law, poetry, prophecy, wisdom, gospels, parables, apologetic history, letters, and apocalypse. We must learn to recognize each of the types and read accordingly. We will give a brief introduction to each of these types in a couple of the following sessions of “Reading the Bible with Both Eyes Open.”.
- Our presuppositions often blind us to looking at the text with any other set of glasses for fear that we may be tampering with the truth.
A verse in the last chapter of Revelation has caused untold fear in this regard. I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. (Rev. 22.18). We have a misplaced belief that this verse applies to the whole of Scripture when it really applies only to the Book of Revelation. We have become wooden in our interpretation for fear that we may add something to God’s Word and by being wooden we have ensured ourselves of adding meanings to his Word that were never intended.
- The various ways of interpretation that are offered by professionals often clutter our mind and leave us with difficulty in choosing a right from a wrong way.
We stay with the most popular way of understanding because we have been told that scholarship makes it too difficult for the person in the pew to grasp the meaning of a text. Added to that belief is the belief hat the pulpit has not educated and trained the pew to think critically. The pulpit often produces pablum which leads to starvation that often leads to the pew searching for scraps (think verses, see below #6) for existence. The usual culprit to this abarrant thought pattern is a belief process rooted in an anti-intellectual bias.
- We may sometimes listen to rather exotic voices, which provide wild and outlandish interpretations rather than use the mind that God has given us to use for thinking.
There is a trait among folks who listen to those who expound to regard interpretations that tickles their minds with a sort of science fiction belief system. God really did place a mind between our ears for a reason. He doesn’t expect us to leave it at the front door of the church or conference hall when we enter and replace it with our emotions. It really is spiritual to use your mind and think through what you are being taught and question every teacher/preacher about what they are saying. Otherwide we end up like the 1972 TV commerical that says “Mikey will eat anything!” It is fair to say of those who have a study diet of toxic exotic voices that “Jimmy or Joanie willl believe anything.”
- We have developed the disease of Versitis. This disease can be diagnosed by the symptom of jumping from one verse to another in violation of the God-given order of progression of Scripture. Versitis is the method of the cults and most current readers of Scripture. The one who wants to hear what God has said will respect the order in which God gave his Word. This is limited to the order within each book. The order of the books is rather arbitrary but sometimes useful.
The books of the First and Second Testaments were divided into chapters from an early time. The Pentateuch was divided by the ancient Hebrews into 54 sections, one of which was read in the synagogue every Sabbath day (Acts 13:15). These sections were later divided into 669 sections of unequal length. The Prophets were divided in the same manner into passages. In the early Latin and Greek versions of the Bible, similar divisions were made. The Second Testament books were also divided into portions of various lengths under different names with titles and heads or chapters. In modern times this ancient example was imitated, and many attempts of the kind were made before the existing division into chapters was fixed. The Latin Bible published by Cardinal Hugo of St. Cher in AD 1250 is generally regarded as the first Bible that was divided into our present chapters, although it appears that some of the chapters were fixed as early as AD 1059. This division into chapters came gradually to be adopted in the published editions of the Hebrew Bible, with some few variations, and in the Greek Scriptures. The division into verses came in AD 1551 when Robert Stephens introduced a Greek New Testament with the inclusion of verses. The first entire English Bible to have verse divisions was the Geneva Bible AD 1560. Surely, we must ask how the church could have developed without a versified Bible for a century and a half?
- We often hold a view of inspiration, which leads us to believe that we can interpret Scripture with a different set of interpretive rules than the ones used to interpret uninspired literature.
We have been led to believe that because the Bible is God’s word, we can just make it say anything that we want it to say by violating interpretative rules that we use with any literature.
- We often use our creativity when interpreting the text and then blame it on the Holy Spirit.
We listen subjectively to Scripture and believe that we have arrived at a meaning of the text and then blaming it on the Holy Spirit for what we have subjectively heard. Think about this for a moment. If God only has one meaning to texts, which some believe, then how is it that the Holy Spirit gives out so many different meanings? Is he confused?
- We have developed a belief system, which says that whatever it means to me today is the plain meaning of the text.
There are those that say that the plain meaning of the text is the meaning of the text. You don’t have to know any history or grammar, only the words in the English Bible and usually by that they mean the King James Version. With this in mind, what is the plain meaning of this text? At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar (1 Chron. 26.18 KJV), or this text: Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137.9 KJV). Go ahead, give it a try! When you try, don’t cop out by saying these verses are in the First Testament and we only have to follow those in the Second Testament. Truth is, they were not verses when the pen of the author wrote them.
- We have come to believe that any interpretation that we hear that is different from the one that we have adopted must be false.
Our culture has taught us right and wrong. This is not bad, mind you. But when we take non-bendable sides as if we have the only truth and all other is false, we have placed ourselves in the seat of God.
Think through the ten items and discover if you are guilty of believing any of them. The more of these you actually believe, the less accurate your interpretation of Scripture will be.
|Living into the Text!|
It is always important to live into what you have learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- Why is it important to know the historical, cultural, and geographic context so that Scripture does not become monotone as we read it?
- What presuppositions about Scripture might you have that causes you to be blind to what Scripture is saying?
- How does the disease of versitis cause you to be misinformed about the meaning of texts of Scripture? Do you have the disease of versitis?
- How have you been guilty of blaming the Holy Spirit for a meaning of a text and you then discovered that the meaning of the text was wrong?
The articles below come from various Bible Dictionaries and other sources. The posting of these brief articles are to introduce some readers to the vast amount of information that is provided to enhance your reading of the text of the Bible with a hope that it will lead to a better understanding of the text and will lead the reader to an improved praxis in his or her community of faith and personal life. You might read the articles offline in a number of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would recommend New Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try Revell Bible Dictionary. Revell Bible Dictionary is no longer in print but is available from Amazon. One of these should suit your personal needs. Another option is Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, which is one of the most useful and practical theological reference books online. With bibliographies for most entries, further reading help and study is very practical.