Every reader reading Scripture has to begin somewhere. Just opening your Bible and laying your eyes on a page of words and start to read is one way to begin. But, it may not be the best way to begin. From a very early age, you have probably been in a car as a passenger. You have watched others drive the vehicle in which you are riding. As a passenger, you get to a destination, but you may not be aware of how you arrived there. On the other hand, the driver usually has some idea of where the destination is and heads out in that direction. But, if s/he has never been to the destination, the drive may take twists and turns, even though they may have been enjoyable, they were not necessary to arrive at the destination. Now imagine, you jump into a car for the very first time and begin the process of driving. What do you do first, second, third, and so on. Even in the horse and buggy days, certain things could be helpful for the person driving the buggy. Beginnings are necessary to have endings. Enlightened beginnings lead to enlightened endings.
Interpreting Scripture is an essential task for Jesus followers. God has been gracious and kind in providing for his children a group of books, sixty-six in all, which we call the Bible. To know how to begin this task will lead a reader to a better understanding of what is being read.
There are sixty-six books that carry a life-changing message in the Bible. These books present a story that God wants us to live in. To receive this living instruction that God intends, we must be good readers and interpreters. Every time we pick up the Bible and begin reading one of its books, we start the process of interpretation. There are many contemporary ideas to which we have been exposed that cause us to pollute the message as we interpret. The Bible is inspired, but the way we often understand it is uninspired.
It would be silly for a person who smokes to be more concerned about the pollution in the atmosphere of the earth than he or she is about air pollution in his or her lungs. The same folly is apparent when Jesus followers spend more time concerned about Scripture’s inspiration than the number of contaminants they ingest as they interpret.
Can you trust the Bible? Yes! Does its message get polluted as it is transmitted from its pages as you read and it enters into your head, heart, and life? Probably so! Can you limit the number of pollutants that you allow into your interpretation? Certainly! Can you seal off some of these by employing some simple safeguards? You bet! or as my daddy used to say “yessiree bob!”
I hope that as you spend time with this material, you will begin the process of eradicating the pollutants so that Scripture can illuminate you freshly and dynamically.
Purpose: We aim to provide the reader with a basic understanding of how to interpret each of the various significant kinds of literature in the First Testament. We will discuss exegesis, hermeneutics, multiple tools, narratives, covenants, poetry, prophets, and wisdom.
Objective: A Jesus follower will be able to apply these methods for each of the literary categories of the First Testament. This procedure will produce a lifetime of study habits as you interpret any passage in the First Testament.
The session objectives are:
- To provide the student with an overview of Exegesis and Hermeneutics
- To provide insights into the concept of Worldview and Interpretation
- To acquaint the student with the five major genres of First Testament literature
- To cause the student to effectively evaluate and rethink his or her own set of presuppositions
Fee, Gordon D., & Douglas, Stuart. How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth. Fourth Edition. Zondervan Publishing House. 2014.
When you finish this session, you should be able to:
- Have a working definition of the Bible
- Answer some questions about how we have interpreted Scripture
- Understand ten reasons why it is challenging to interpret Scripture
- Understand that a common problem is not doing what we know from the plain text in Scripture
- Understand that the process of understanding what an author says is called interpreting
In this session, we will begin with a discussion of three approaches to Bible reading and study. Next, we will talk about the Christian trait of collecting fragments in an endeavor to understand Scripture. Then, we will look at a working definition for the Bible. Next, we will ask some questions whose answers are often taken for granted. Then, we will share ten reasons why it is challenging to interpret Scripture. Finally, we will observe how easy it is to see the plain meaning of a text and how difficult it is to do what the text in a book says.
Where We Are Going
Donut Holes and Fissiparous Presentations
Approaches to Bible Study
A Penchant for Minutia: Collecting Fragments
Chapters and Verses
A Working Definition
Interpreting Scripture: Ten Reasons Why It is Difficult
Reading Is Interpreting
Interpretation Happens Automatically
You As Reader
Inspiration: Scripture is God-breathed
Did Scripture Writers Understand the Process of Inspiration?
Donut Holes and Fissiparous Presentations
I love donuts. I often wondered who decided to make holes in them. One of my first jobs, when I was a kid, was making donuts using a machine that plopped out the dough into the hot grease with a perfect hole already in its center. The exciting thing about a donut hole is that you know it is there. You can see the hole as you look at the donut. The hole has a form, but the interesting thing about it is that it has no substance. If you eat nothing but the donut hole in your donut, you would surely starve to death. But, alas, some enterprising entrepreneur decided to make donut holes as a stand-alone product.
A donut hole is a lot like some of the preaching that is done every Sunday in today’s church. There is some form but little, if any, substance. Even if it is a standalone donut hole, one has to eat a lot of them to get any hunger satisfaction. I have listened to lots of sermons that bear this resemblance to the donut hole in the middle of the donut. It seems to be the dominant belief among these pastors that the Topical Sermon (what I call Topicalitis, a deadly and contagious Bible-teaching disorder) is believed to be the way to present the truth of God’s word. It may be interesting to note that those who have spent many years putting these topics together: great men like Nave and Torrey, simply added to a problem of fragmentation of God’s story as a whole. It is also interesting that God did not put his story together in this fashion. We have created this disease among ourselves, and it has caused insufferable damage to the story of God. Could it be that a topical approach to teaching Scripture is trying to improve on what God has put together? I think so.
For the most part, a Topical Sermon is a choice of a topic, usually, on Saturday evening, a time customarily believed by pastors to be the time God speaks to them if you listen to their sermons. They pull down the concordance, Nave or Torrey, and collect a few verses, usually unrelated to each other, and build a rip-roaring sermon. What often occurs in this form of communication is that the pastor preaches on his favorite ideas over and over again.
I once heard a story about a pastor whose favorite topic in Scripture was water baptism. Each Sunday, he preached about his favorite subject no matter what the passage of Scripture said. Finally, his deacons came to him and asked him if there might be something other than water baptism about which he might speak. The next Sunday he related the story of the visit of his deacons to the congregation and that he was going to follow their advice. He said that he was going to open his Bible and preach his sermon on whatever verse his eyes fell. He did so and read from Matthew 3.10, “And now also the ax is laid at the root of the trees….” Evidently,” he begins his sermon, “these trees were growing down by the river and needed to be cleared out for a water baptism service.”
Imbalance in the life of the congregation is where modern Topical Sermons often lead. The pastor’s favorite subjects, and often the easiest to produce, can be expounded to the neglect of everything else that leads those under his care to become malnourished, starved, or malformed.
Preaching and teaching is hard work! It demands study and preparation. Just announce that you are going to preach through the Gospel of Mark and see in that story what directly applies to the listeners. You will only read a few verses before you discover that the Spirit often drives us to a place where the enemy attacks us. You will be confronted with the words of Jesus about divorce. You will be speaking to those who wonder why they are attacked by the enemy, usually thinking that they did something wrong. You will speak to husbands and wives, children, and in-laws who have experienced a divorce. Pastors might never have dealt with this because of the pain in their own life, but preaching or teaching through a book will cause a pastor and his congregation to deal with their own presuppositions about topics that might never be touched using a topical approach to Scripture.
Say one who is pastoring was preaching or teaching through 1 Corinthians and came to the passage where Paul exhorts his readers to “be eager to prophesy, and do not forget speaking in tongues.” Within the context of the passage and the full context of 1 Corinthians, one can expect to have a working idea of how this works in the church. What if the one who is teaching believes that a free-wheeling spiritual atmosphere is a cure for all the ailments of your church? Well, the listener would be challenged by the next verse, if they were exposed to it as part of the context, which tells readers that everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Expository narrative sermons expose listeners to the meaning of the stories and passages which its first hearers understood. The meaning of the story or passage is the same for present listeners as they sit and listen to someone expose them to the text’s meaning. A preacher or teacher’s job is to discover what the passage meant to its first audience and then relate the truth of that passage to his or her listeners.
The basic response by teachers/preachers to this form of teaching is that it is too much hard work. Often, however, the truth of the matter is that teachers/preachers don’t know how to do the work of teaching the text within its context, so they salve their conscience with the belief that it is too much work.
It is our job here in these sessions to give you some food for thought about your presuppositions about Scripture, what exegesis really is, and how we actually can go through the process of interpretation. Nothing less than starvation is at stake!
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 Scripture demonstrate that God did not change, but continued to speak (Genesis 1.3ff.; Revelation 22.10ff.).
That he has spoken is clear. What he is saying or has said is often not so clear to us today. God has spoken, but what has he said, or what is he saying? To understand what God says in Scripture, we must, in fact, establish what God has said. One illustration of this is the Eye of the Needle story in the Gospel of Mark.
Eye of the Needle (Mark 10.25ff.): You may have heard one or more sermons about the difficulty of entering into salvation using this passage as the text. The usual rendering is to tell of how difficult it is for a camel to go through a gate in Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye. The point of this interpretation is to assure the hearer that it is very difficult to enter into salvation. This whole line of interpretation is built on the theory that there was such a gate in Jerusalem during the time of Christ. It may come as a surprise to you, but there was never a gate in the history of Jerusalem by this name. The earliest known comment about such is in a commentary by an eleventh-century communicator named Theophylact. He may have had the same difficulty with the passage as we have had when we read it, namely that it is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. That is precisely the point of the story that Jesus is sharing with his disciples. It is impossible for one who trusts in his riches to enter the kingdom of God. When riches rule, God does not!
There is a section of the church whose belief structure is governed by a form of theology called Dispensationalism. One of the salient points of this theological structure is the belief that when the canon was finalized at the Council of Carthage in AD 397 there was no longer the need for God to speak in any other way than through Scripture. I think that Dispensationalism teaching has caused and continues to cause endless grief in the lives of followers of Jesus.
On the other side of the coin, those who profess to be 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 that God uses to speak. In short, the actions of this branch of the church speak louder than their words.
Our emphasis for these sessions is to help you 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 the academic approach and the personalized approach to understanding Scripture. We will conclude by offering you an introduction to an informed content approach to Scripture.
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 pastors and Jesus followers.
The historical process seeks to come to an understanding of what the Scripture meant to its original hearers. I think it is safe to say that most followers of Jesus 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 Jesus disciples 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 conclusion ought not to be! This approach to studying is a vigorous part of the teacher’s call to be teacher and feeder of the flock. 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
The personalized approach 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 holds 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 the present reader? It is at this juncture that most believers spend most of their time reading Scripture. If the reader can come away with an instant inspirational moment, 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.
Short 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 biblical meaning is what cults are made from.
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 not most likely 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.
You may read the word hell in Scripture and fast and pray for days and 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 must learn to turn to the scholarly helps to find the answers you need. Turning to the scholarly material helps you understand Scripture better because God revealed himself in history, through culture, with words understood by the first hearer. 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 mankind primarily through the Hebrew culture. 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 academic approach helps you understand what the Bible said to the first hearers and because you have a need for current life application, both the academic and personalized approaches must be wedded together to bring the proper balance. We call this the context-content 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 and your congregation. What you must keep in mind is that what it means now depends on what it meant then. The message has not changed with time. God did not write a multiple-choice Bible. 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. It simply means today what it meant then, no more and no less.
You 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 child of God. In turn, their ministry will cause a life-changing experience in you. And then you can cause a life-changing experience in the people God has entrusted into your care.[ref] Winn Griffin. God Has Spoken, But What Has He Said? 3 Reasons for and 3 Approaches to Hearing God In Scripture. Basilia Press: An Imprint of Harmon Press. (Kindle Location 123-412).[/ref]
A Penchant for Minutia: Collecting Fragments
The Bible was designed by God to be read as a story. It is definitely not a dull book! However, those of us reading it sometimes are the dull ones, and we mistakenly project our dullness onto Scripture. While it is the best-selling book of all time, it is often the least read. We have been fashioned by its sayings without knowing it. Which of us has not said or heard, “…out of the mouth of babes” and knew that we were quoting Psalms 8.2? Have we not spoken of a person’s attitude as being “holier than thou,” and knew that we were quoting Isaiah 65.5? Some of the greatest speeches in the world have quoted Scripture. One famous line from Abraham Lincoln was, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was quoting a line from the pen of Mark (3.25). Parents have told their children to “beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They are quoting Jesus or misquoting him (Matthew 7.15). While we know some of the classic sayings of Scripture, we are often still illiterate of its meaning and power. We have focused on the smallest part of Scripture, i.e., verses. We are often content with collecting and quoting these fragments. By doing so, we become mentally poorer in knowing Scripture’s overall story. It is easy to throw a few unrelated verses together and then speak our opinion about them. When we do, those who hear our thoughts are poorer and weaker for the encounter. This ought not to be!
The Bible is a wonderful book. It is the primary way that God uses to help us know him better and to become more like him. Our task as readers and interpreters of Scripture is to understand what God has said to those to whom he first spoke. We are too often driven to study the Bible before we have learned to read it well.[ref]See my “Reading the Bible Story” web site for information on how to “defrag” your Bible reading. http://wgriff.in/rbs-oti[/ref] Study sounds so ominous, so foreboding, and it can be! As believers and teachers, we want to know God, so we jump in and begin our study without having a goal in mind, sometimes without knowing all that study involves.
One of our biggest hindrances that produce this behavior is our own culture. We bring good old American presuppositions about topics such as love, grace, mercy, hell, heaven, and many others to our study. America has taught us that “right is might.” Therefore, we often study to prove a point rather than hear what God wants to say to us. Instead of topics to prove, God has given us books to understand.
God chose to give us his word through many different authors, media, and centuries. The Bible is many books, written over a 1500 year period with no fewer than forty authors. These individuals included kings, prophets, shepherds, philosophers, educated, and unlearned. These books, like all books, have a beginning, middle, and end. They have context. They can stand alone to give us the specific word of God that the Holy Spirit wanted those first hearers to understand and then live that understanding out in their lives. Nothing has changed! God still desires us to read His Story today in a defragmented way.
Chapters and Verses
The modern reader has to read these books through the added distraction of chapters and verses. From our earliest reading experiences, we have learned to read in chapters. Verses, on the other hand, pose a whole different obstacle. Verses are a convenient way to look up a reference. But that’s where their usefulness ends. I believe that the addition of verses to the pages of the Bible is the single most harmful barrier to reading and understanding it. Many verses are only part of a sentence. To read them or memorize them only, has no real meaning. These little groups of words, which have been sloganized, placed on banners, greeting cards, and plaques are not God’s word when seen, memorized, or printed by themselves apart from their historical context. It is true to say that you would not read one of your favorite books this way. It would be like reading this sentence:
- I love the sound 4. of your voice in the springtime.
Then, for some unknown reason, you decide to memorize only verse 4, “of your voice in the springtime.” After memorizing it, you quote it over and over again, hoping it will help those who are hearers in some moment of need. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
Remember, the books of the Bible were broken down into chapters and verses later. You may wish to note that the original writers did not write this way, nor did the original readers read this way. Therefore, they did not think this way. It is unfortunate that we have been taught to memorize and quote verses. We were taught this because of a verse (wouldn’t you know it) from the book of Psalms.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you (Psalms 119.11 NIV).
We will take this verse up later in Session 5 | Understanding What the Present Hearer Hears Now, as an illustration of how quoting verses can make something mean what it was never intended to mean.
A Working Definition
The Bible is a book that demonstrates how God has acted in a relationship with his people. It is the word of God written in the words of men.[ref] Ladd, George. The Second Testament and Criticism. 12.[/ref] The biblical model of revelation is the revealing acts of God in history, accompanied by the interpreting prophetic word, which explains the divine source and character of the divine acts. Acts and words; God acts and God speaks; and the words explain the deeds. The deeds cannot be understood unless they are accompanied by his word. The word would be powerless unless accompanied by the mighty acts of God. It is a word-works revelation. They are an inseparable unity. [ref] Ladd, George. New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966. 27.[/ref]
Thus, God both acts and interprets the meaning of his acts. Scripture is the works and words of God. This view is a key concept for understanding Scripture. For us to understand the faithfulness of God, we need to become familiar with how God has acted in faithfulness toward his children and what he says those acts mean. Christ’s death is an act of God. Christ died for us while we were sinners is his word of explanation for us.
The following are some questions to ponder. When asked to a large portion of the Institutional Church today, the answer given to these questions is a resounding yes! I supply a possible answer from my own personal experience. I suggest that you provide your own.
Question: Is the Bible primarily a textbook for teaching values?
Answer: No! We begin teaching Scripture to kids at an early age in children’s church and Sunday school and rightfully so. We teach them by telling them the morals of certain great heroes of the faith. When we teach Scripture from this position, we are saying that Scripture is a textbook that gives us a list of values by which we should direct our lives. While Scripture contains values, values are not the purpose of the word-works of God. Scripture is rather the story of salvation history.
Question: Does Scripture present certain principles by which we are to live?
Answer: No! We often hear preachers and teachers give us a set of principles, which we should follow in order to become a better Christian. We cannot reduce the word-works of God into a static set of principles that we can follow and, thereby, become righteous.
Question: Can the true significance of Scripture be portrayed solely by defining its words or by quoting a verse?
Answer: No! We define words with precision and believe that we have discovered in their definition a relationship with God. We must be reminded that words in Scripture are dynamic. They have different meanings in different contexts. They cannot be dissected into parts and then returned to the whole in order to find meaning.
Problem-Solving: We often make the Bible something it is not. It is often held as a truth that in Scripture, all the problems of life can be solved. But, not all the problems and challenges of life can easily be solved by turning to a specific chapter and quoting a precise verse. We often treat the Bible as if it were a troubleshooting guide for a new software package. This approach has caused us to have many unhealthy attitudes about Scripture.
Textbook: When we conceive of the Bible as a textbook solely for the instruction of values and principles, which can be arrived at by defining words, we leave ourselves open for an ongoing debate with secularism about the qualities of goodness.
Other religions also have good value systems. When we hold to the above position, we are left with only one conclusion to present—that the value system Jesus produced is better than all the rest. The result is arguments without solutions because opinions are non-verifiable.
The definition with which we are working, then, suggests that we come to Scripture to find out how God has acted on behalf of his children. His Story begins with creation, moves to the fall, then to Abraham, moving to Moses and the giving of the covenant, followed by the rise and fall of Israel as a nation, and finally to the coming of Jesus invading this present evil age. In this storyline, we see God acting and interpreting his acts. When we understand his acts, we become acquainted with how God will act on our behalf.
Interpreting Scripture: Ten Reasons Why It Is Difficult
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.
I think it is fair to say that God spoke to us through the written word by inspiring those who wrote and 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 he said, but that does not mean they did not understand it. Based on this presupposition, we could say, that when we have several interpretations of a specific text, that all but one of them is incorrect, provided there is a correct one among those on the list of interpretations presented.
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 minds 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. Otherwise we end up like the 1972 TV commercial 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 will 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 the 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.[ref]You can find this material a bit more fleshed out here.[/ref]
Reading Is Interpreting
How can we read Scripture in order to understand how God has acted, what those acts mean, thereby knowing what we are to do? The most common misconception often held about Scripture is that interpretation of it is not needed. One only needs to read Scripture and take its plain meaning. The saying goes something like this: “Pastor, you don’t need to interpret Scripture, just read it to us and tell us what to do.”
The whole idea of interpretation appears, to the layperson who sits in institutional churches Sunday after Sunday, to be a job for a professional. The layperson often thinks that he or she cannot understand what Scripture is saying because he or she is not a professional. Their protest needs to be listened to. A lot of Scripture can simply be read and understood. The most common problem we have is doing what the plain meaning of Scripture is commanding us to do.
In 1 Thessalonians 5.12-19, we have a perfect example.
Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5.12-19).
Here is this passage in a list format:
- Respect those in the ministry.
- Hold them in highest regard and love.
- Live in peace.
- Warn people who are idle.
- Encourage the timid.
- Help the weak.
- Be patient with everyone.
- Do not pay back wrong with wrong.
- Be kind to everyone.
- Be joyful.
- Pray continually.
- Give thanks in all circumstances.
- Do not do away with the Spirit.
- Allow prophecies to occur and test them while holding on to the good ones and avoiding the evil ones.
This passage provides us a list of fourteen things which we are to do. The question here is both what do these mean and then what is my community/I doing about them?
However, as I listed them for you, I was interpreting. Every reader of Scripture is, at the same time, an interpreter of Scripture. These Scriptural commands seem to be quite plain. The question then is: Why can’t we just read and get the plain meaning of Scripture? In order to answer that question, let’s talk about you as a reader of Scripture.
Interpretation Happens Automatically
When anyone picks up a book to read, the very first process that happens when you start scanning the words on the page with your eyes is interpretation. You are trying to understand what the author of the book is saying. It is fair to say that the genre of the book that you choose to read has a lot of influence on how you will interpret the book you are reading. As an example, you would not read a mystery novel with the same set of rules that you read a book of poetry.
What is true of your everyday reading is true of Scripture. God has been seen as capable in his bountiful creation to choose many authors and many types of literature to express his word to us. It is incumbent on us as twenty-first-century readers and interpreters to honor him by taking time to understand the kind of literature that he has chosen to send us his word.
My purpose in writing this material is to open up for you some of the basic principles of interpretation in order to help you appreciate, value, and hear God’s voice through the pages of Scripture.
It is my opinion that there are two basic groups within the church when it comes to the use of Scripture: those who believe that God only speaks today through his word, and those who believe that God speaks in the same ways he spoke in Scripture, as well as speaking through Scripture.
Those who are in the first group miss the rich variety of ways that God has chosen to communicate with his children. What a shame! On the other hand, those in the second group often pay lip service to hear God’s voice in the pages of Scripture while spending most and in some cases all, of their time, trying to hear God speak through many other vehicles while ignoring his word.
Inspired: The English word inspiration has many meanings in the secular atmosphere of the day. In Scripture, it points to a special view of the sacred writers and what they wrote. Inspiration is the influence of the Holy Spirit on the writers, through which God chose to write his word. The consequence of inspiration is that the writings of these authors became trustworthy and authoritative.
You As Reader
Every reader is an interpreter of what he or she is reading. We may not have thought of this in quite this way. But it is true. We might readily agree that when we read, we are trying to understand what the author is communicating. That process of trying to understand is called interpreting.
When reading Scripture or any other book, we usually work with certain presuppositions. The main one is: What we understand as we read is what the author intends by the words s/he has chosen to communicate to us. In other words, our understanding and his/her intent are the same.
The fact is, however, that we all bring our own cultural bias to the reading of Scripture. We have different presuppositions, different understandings of word definitions, and different experiences. All of these, plus others, will cause us to read Scripture with a bias. What we ingest is often polluted. What God intended as living water becomes polluted water. Because of this, we sometimes read all kinds of things into the text which the divine and human author never intended. We don’t mean to do such, but it occurs nevertheless.
First, when you read, you bring to the text your own set of glasses (presuppositions) through which you read and interpret. Let’s take numbers like 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, as an example when we see a “6” we see a symbol that represents a number. We could also say “half a dozen,” and it would be the same number. In common usage, a number may refer to a symbol, a word or phrase, or a mathematical object.[ref]Wikipedia. “Number” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number [/ref] Second, when reading Scripture, the version you choose is a translation of other languages, Greek in the Second Testament, Hebrew, and Aramaic in the First Testament. Translators are often called upon to make choices regarding meanings. Their choices will affect how you understand the text (Read 1 Cor. 7.36; Rom. 9.5 in several Bible versions).
Inspiration: Scripture Is God-Breathed
There are at least two passages of Scripture in the Second Testament, which shed light on the inspiration of Scripture. The first is found in 2 Timothy 3.16. The greater context of this verse is salvation.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3.16).
The word God-breathed in this passage is a positive word, which relates Scripture directly to God. While several translations have chosen to translate the Greek word by the English word inspired, The New International Version (NIV) has done justice to the unique work of the Holy Spirit by translating the word God-breathed, which is a direct translation of the Greek word theopneustos. (pronounced theo-NOOSE-tos).
The statement that human words are God-breathed surely points to their truth and trustworthiness. There is a specific goal, which these writings point toward: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The purpose of these God-breathed words is to bring about completeness and equipment of the people of God.
God-breathed points to an essential relationship between the breath of God and the words of men. A simple conclusion, which can be seen in this passage is: Scripture is useful because it is God-breathed versus man-breathed.
The second passage is found in 2 Peter.
For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1.21).
For Peter, prophecy is the prophecy that is written in the First Testament. We may conclude that he is referring to Scripture or at least a part of Scripture. Peter’s words give us some clues in determining the character of Scripture.
The important phrase is from God. Prophecy comes from God, not from man. The phrase gives the dimension of authority and trustworthiness to the prophecy. The origin does not exclude the human character of it (note: men [and women] spoke). It does give the unique quality of trustworthiness that these human words have.
This is the essential idea and understanding of God-breathed Scripture. The words of men in Scripture then carry the essential quality of trustworthiness.
Did Scripture Writers Understand the Process of Inspiration?
The question is often asked: Did the writers of Scripture know that this process of inspiration was happening to them while they were writing? Here are three illustrations from the Second Testament, which may help answer this question.
John calls the book of Revelation a prophecy.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Revelation 1.1-3).
The awareness of inspiration is common in some of the Second Testament writers.
Luke, the author of Luke-Acts, writes a description of his reason and efforts to write his books in the first few verses of Luke.
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1.1-4).
Notice Luke mentions that:
- Several have written accounts.
- The material was handed down from the eyewitnesses.
- Luke had carefully investigated everything for himself.
- It seemed good for him to write also.
Finally, in the letters of Paul, he appears to show no awareness that this God-breathed process is going on when he is writing. He could even have a secretary to help him write.
I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord (Romans 16.22 NIV).
It is Peter who sees the writings of Paul as somehow within the same category of authority as the First Testament Scriptures.
So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3.14-16).
The apparent answer may be that some were aware of the process while others were not.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- Have you asked any of these questions about Scripture or some questions like them? Why?
- Do you hold to these presuppositions? Why?
- With which of these ten reasons have you had difficulty? Are you ready to change?