Three Approaches to Bible Reading and Study
God is a speaking God. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the writers of the Scripture story demonstrate that God did not change his modus operandi, but continued to speak (Genesis 1; Revelation 22).
That he has spoken is clear. What he said is often not so clear. The question then is: God has spoken, but what did he say? To understand what God has said in Scripture we must, in fact, first establish what God has said. Why is that important? Rob Bell in his book What is the Bible? says, “Because it’s a book about them, then, that somehow speaks to you and me, here and now, and it can change the way you think and feel about everything.”[ref]Rob Bell. What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. 15.[/ref]
The story and stories that make up the story were told over and over again around the campfires of ancient Israel. Years later these stories were written down. Since we aren’t sitting around a campfire with Moses or Joshua, or the many others who told these stories, it is important for us to understand the background of the stories they told in order to understand what the story is saying now.
In this reading, we will discuss three approached that are used to accomplish the goal of understanding what God has said.
Let me begin by suggesting that there is a section of the church whose belief structure is governed by a form of theology called Dispensational theology. One of the salient points of this theological structure is the belief that when the Canon was finalized at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, there was no longer the need for God to speak in any other way than through Scripture. It is my belief that this teaching has caused and still causes endless grief within the church. It equips the reader to read with a “literal” frame of reference.
On the other side of the coin, those who profess to be Pentecostal or Charismatic in their system of belief often find themselves giving lip service to the idea that God speaks through Scripture while depending almost exclusively on other forms of communication which God uses to speak. In short, the actions of this branch of the church spoke, and maybe still does in many cases, louder than their words.
I grew up in the South in a small Pentecostal church. The sermons, usually the only source of hearing scripture, were entertaining and more often than not devotional. Often times after I left that environment, I would call home on a Sunday night and talk with my sister. Somewhere in that conversation, I would ask: “Did you go to church today?” Her answer was “yes.” Then I would ask, “what did the preacher talk about?” She would reply. “I don’t remember, but it sure was good!”
As a matter of fact, almost her total consumption of biblical ideas came through the Southern Gospel music that she played and sang on a regular basis, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night along with countless two week revivals for almost 50 years.
Our emphasis in these readings is to help you to hear God’s voice in a fresh and clearer way from the pages of Scripture itself. We will begin by helping you understand the difference between a historical approach and a personalized approach to understanding Scripture. We will conclude by offering you an introduction to what Craig Keener calls Spirit Hermeneutics [ref]Craig Keener. Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost. [/ref], which is a way of reading the Bible that is faithful to the Spirit-inspired biblical text and to the experience of the Spirit among believers. It is a both/and approach.
A Historical Approach
The historical approach to studying Scripture lays heavy emphasis on knowing the original languages, culture, history, and the theology of Scripture. These words usually run shudders down the spine of most Jesus followers. Usually, these folks follow another approach and often think that this stuff is not necessary because all you need to do is read the text and the Spirit who inspired the text will give the reader the meaning of the text.
Several years ago i spoke about the value of women in ministry. I provided the listerners several background points in order to help them understand the possible meaning of the text. Later, in a Q&A time, one listener ask the question: “Why do we need Winn to tell us what the text might mean, why can’t we simply pick up the Bible and read it like anyother book and allow the Spirit to provide the meaning?”
I would venture to say that a lot of Jesus followers are in this same place. BTW: those who were running the Q&A could not answer the question of the listener and would not allow me to speak to the issue in the Q&A. After the church service was over and before I left, I found the listener in the lobby and ask him the following: “did you ever read any books to help you do your job better at the software company you work for and if you did, did it enhance you understanding of the job you were hired to do?” His answer was “yes.” I responded, “why, then, would you think that doing the same thing would help you understand the Bible would be helpful?” I concluded: so you don’t mind using helps to help you in your work life, but you don’t need any help to understand your new human life?
The above example reflects that even some who are given to lead congregations are uninformed themselves about this approach to understanding the text of ScriptureTo understand what God has said in Scripture we must, in fact, establish what God has said. Click To TweetThe historical process seeks to help a reader come to an understanding of what the Scripture meant to its original hearers. I think it is safe to say that most believers find this approach beyond their desire to pursue. There is a reason for this belief. In some areas of the church, education is often looked upon as being unspiritual. Often, this anti-intellectual or unreflective piety (the substitution of emotional fervor for disciplined thought) approach to Scripture leads many believers into various aberrant lifestyles. The tragic result that often occurs is that those who believe that God called them to the ministry of scholarship are often looked upon as being unspiritual. The outcome of their findings is often rejected because their spirituality is in question. This ought not to be! A historical approach to studying is a vigorous part of their call to feed the church. How can one expect to say what Scripture means without first understanding what it meant? The message then is the message now!
A Personalized Approach
A personalized approach can be understood as an individualize devotional approach, which stresses the practical needs of the reader of Scripture. This approach has no concern for word meanings, culture, history, or theology. It is often the case that those who believe that Scripture only means what it means now hold theology up to ridicule and rebuff it as being dry with no ability to produce life. The primary focus of this now approach is: what does Scripture mean to me as the present reader? It is in this mindset that most believers spend most of their time reading Scripture. If the reader can come away with an instant inspirational moment in hand, then that seems to be enough to satisfy the immediate desire. If the pastor can come up with an instant inspirational thought, he can surely help his listeners go away inspired. This is like getting a quick fix from a sugar-laden candy bar. In the short-term, it feels great, but in the long-term, it is a sheer terror on the body and hunger returns with a vengeance.God has spoken, but what did he say? Click To TweetShort passages, read out of context, often form the bounty of Scriptural intake for many believers, pastors, and teachers. There are times when God will focus you as a reader on a personal word while you are reading Scripture. The result: you are blessed! God has and will continue to speak in this manner to his children. However, the word of encouragement, counsel, or guidance that you may receive in these moments of inspiration does not reflect the meaning of the passage from which the encouragement or guidance comes. The Holy Spirit does not teach us Scripture in this way. Teaching personal application as the biblical meaning is what cults are made from. Conflating a personal inspirational moment with the meaning of the text is the arena where many disagreements about the meaning of the text arise. After all one might think, what I think the Spirit told me it means is what it means, I don’t really care what anyone else has to say. All you need to do is go on Facebook and you will see an abundance of this kind of reasoning, not only in biblical discussions but in almost all discussions about any topic. This approach is infected with the disease of “rightitus.”
Spirit Interpretation: The Best of Both Interpretative Approaches
Both the historical and the personalize approaches are too limited by themselves. Using either one of them exclusively will give you a one-eyed look at the text of Scripture. I think it is fair to say that the historical approach will most likely not lead you into an error while the personalized approach will lead you to error more quickly. If you stress the historical approach over the personal approach, you may end up with only a study of ancient historical writings with information that may have no current application. When taught or read to a congregation they will often respond, “Who cares!” However, if you stress a personalized approach over the historical approach, you will, more often than not, end up with some distorted message. A deformed message produces deformed believers.
As an example, you may read the word hell in Scripture and fast and pray for days and nights and will most likely never understand the biblical meaning of hell. Most likely you will be much more influenced by a modern church cultural understanding than a biblical understanding. In order to understand the word and thus the concept of hell, you would need to learn to turn to the scholarly helps to find an answer. Turning to the scholarly material helps you understand Scripture better because God revealed himself in history, through culture, with words understood by the first hearers in that culture. So give this a try read this article on Hell and see how it agrees or disagrees with your own view.
This is the bread and butter of scholarly work. Scripture, as we have it today, did not hit the authors on the head while they were in a holy trance, nor did God grab their hands and force them to write specific words. God chose to reveal himself to humankind primarily through the Hebrew culture, using Hebrew and Greek words. Because God gave us Scripture in this manner, it seems best to honor him by interpreting it within its historical and cultural context. Because the historical approach helps you understand what the Bible said to the first hearers and because you have a need for a current need to live into the Story, both the historical and personalized approaches must be wedded together to bring the proper harmony to our understanding and thus our actions. Following, Keener, we call this the Spirit Interpretation approach.
You need to understand what it said to the first hearer, using all the tools available for you to do so. But, in the final analysis, you need to be able to hear what it now means to you, based on what it meant to the first hearer. What you must keep in mind is that what a text/story means now depends on what that text/story meant then. The message has not changed with time. God did not write a multiple-choice Bible with several different layers of meaning. He did not stack multiple meanings into the text so that each generation could wrestle with the text and discover what it meant only for its generation. Any text in the Bible simply means today what it meant then, no more and no less.Scripture, as we have it today, did not hit the authors on the head while they were in a holy trance... Click To TweetYou can find wonderful inspiration from Scripture and you should continue to do so. If you are not doing so, you should begin. However, you must also allow those whom God has given to the church as teachers, whose ministry is to practice scholarship in order to bring the message of Scripture to the church, a place in your reading and understanding. Their ministry helps restore biblical studies to you as a follower of Jesus, a child of God. In turn, their ministry will cause a life-changing experience for you. And then you can cause a life-changing experience in the people God has entrusted into your care.
|Living into the Story!
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.
- When you read Scripture how do you know that it is the voice of God speaking to you and not some subjective opinion that you have brought to the text?
- Why do you think that anti-intellectual or unreflective piety (the substitution of emotional fervor for disciplined thought) approach to Scripture leads many believers into various aberrant lifestyles?
- Why is the quick fix method of studying so popular? Do you practice it? If so, why?
- Why is it important to understand the context and the content of Scripture? How does it help us live into God’s story in the life of our church as well as our personal life?
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.