I’ve always been interested in studying the Bible. As a kid, I was the annoying one in Sunday School who raised his hand at every question until the teacher had finally decided I’d answered enough. As a teenager, I started digging into apologetics, and reading books like The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel became my pastime. It felt good to feel like I had all the answers.
And then I majored in Biblical Studies at Evangel University.
My time at Evangel went something like this:
- Year One: “I’m learning so many new things! When I’m done here I’ll be able to answer any question that comes my way.”
- Year Two: “Man, the Bible is so complex and there are so many passages that mean something different than I originally thought. Good thing I’m here to learn it all.”
- Year Three: “Wow. How was I supposed to know this without knowing how to read ancient Greek? None of my translations say this quite the same way.”
- Year Four: “Everything I know about the Bible is wrong.”
I’m exaggerating a bit for comedic effect, but that’s the gist of it. It turns out that Scripture is remarkably complex, and even the things I thought I had easy answers for turned out to be more nuanced than they first appeared.
I’m not saying the Bible is impossible to read by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I think part of the beauty of Scripture is that the story of the Gospel and of God’s love is still easy to understand.
The problem is that people assume that the entirety of the Bible is easy to understand in this same way. Because of this, we end up with sketchy interpretations of Scripture that rest on the argument that the Bible “clearly says” something it actually doesn’t. Or we take a single passage and exegete it to provide support for our previously-held beliefs without accounting for the context of the verses around it.
Not Quite What He Had In Mind
Here’s an example:
When I was a teenager, our pastor preached a sermon on faithful tithing (everyone’s favorite sermon topic, right?). To encourage the congregation to give, he referenced a Bible verse that supported tithing – with a promise of reward for those who are faithful!
Give, and it will be given to you; a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over—will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.
(Luke 6:38, HCSB)
Put simply, “if you are faithful in giving, God will pour wealth back into your life – and it will be even more than what you gave: pressed down, shaken together, and running over!”
Unfortunately, it seemed that our pastor hadn’t taken the time to research the context of the passage he preached.
BEFORE VERSE 38:
Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
(Luke 6:36-37, HCSB)
AFTER VERSE 38:
Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself don’t see the log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck in your brother’s eye.
(Luke 6:41-42, HCSB)
Now, I’m not saying that God doesn’t demand faithful giving from us as followers of Christ. Sacrificial giving is clearly affirmed in other parts of Scripture (Luke 12:33-34; Luke 21:1-4; Matt. 19:16-24). But in this passage Jesus is teaching his followers the hard truth that when they judge others they will receive judgment in return.
The previously mentioned interpretation of this verse wasn’t a problem because it encouraged people to give, but because there is no biblical guarantee that a follower of Jesus will ever see their earthly wealth returned to them when they give. Just think about how much easier things would have been for the rich young ruler in Matthew 19 if this were true. He wouldn’t have walked away grieving…he would have been ecstatic about the eventual lucrative return on his “investment” into the Kingdom!
Context is Key
The problems with biblical interpretive malpractice go beyond the cherry-picking versification of Scripture. Whereas a misinterpreted passage like above may lead to your congregation being disappointed when they realize their wealth doesn’t grow with their tithe, more serious issues of misinterpretation can drive people out of the church completely.
When we make false assumptions of what the Bible communicates to us and turn those false assumptions into orthodoxy, we misuse Scripture in a manner that damages the credibility of the Church without reason.
People have been turned away from allegiance to Christ over poor interpretations of Scripture. Poor exegesis leads to false claims regarding the age of the earth (Genesis), the nature of the future (Revelation), the role of women in the church (Ephesians, 1 Corinthians) and God’s role in human suffering (Job).
These claims lead fledgling Christians to believe that if they really want to give their lives to Christ they have to “check their brains at the door.” Or they paint the picture of a God who values some people more than others based on their race, gender, or nationality. Or they tell people that God doesn’t care about what we do to the earth because everything will get burned up in the end anyway. The list goes on and on.
In reality, Genesis is an ancient document that reflects Ancient Near Eastern views of the cosmos. Revelation was written in a common style of Jewish literature in order to encourage first-century Christians. Paul’s letters to the Ephesian and Corinthian churches address specific issues in those churches (and our understanding of the nuance in his instructions is poor when read solely in English). The book of Job is a cautionary tale against claiming that God both gives and “takes away.”
But coming to these conclusions takes more than simply “reading the Bible for what it says.” It requires knowledge of the background, literary genre, time of writing, and original language that the book/letter was written in.
The Interpretive Journey
In Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, they outline the most basic process by which we interpret the Bible as faithful followers of Christ. Duvall and Hays realize that “we are separated from the biblical audience by culture and customs, language, situation, and a vast expanse of time,” and they visualize this separation as “a river … that often prohibits us from grasping the meaning of the text for ourselves.”
So how do we arrive at the point where we’re grasping the true meaning of the text? First, we have to figure out how to cross the river that divides us from that meaning.
Duvall and Hays break this down into five steps:
1) Grasping the Text in Their Town
Read the text carefully and observe what it says.
Before you can know what the Bible is meant to say to you, you have to know what it was meant to say to the people who originally read it. This isn’t the development of theological principles quite yet. This is, put simply, doing the dirty work of studying the grammar, the historical background, and the literary genre of the text.
When we make an effort to understand the basics of the date, culture, genre, and language of the original biblical text, we gain insight into its purpose.
Think of the differences in which you might read and interpret a body of text knowing whether it was a scientific journal, a love letter, or a magazine ad. Think about the confusion that might arise if you assumed that a love letter was a scientific thesis! (e.g. If your eyes really shined with the light of two blue suns it’s apparent that the proximity to that much radiation would kill the average man).
2) Measuring the Width of the River to Cross
What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Duvall and Hays offer the story of Joshua 1:1-9 as an example. When we read this story we read the words of God:
Be strong and courageous, for you will distribute the land I swore to their fathers to give them as an inheritance.
Above all, be strong and very courageous to carefully observe the whole instruction My servant Moses commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right or the left, so that you will have success wherever you go. This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.
Haven’t I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
(Josh. 1:6-9, HCSB)
Our first instinct when reading this in our devotions may be to take this as a blanket statement from God to us. But when we measure the width of the river we have to cross, we notice many substantial differences between Joshua and ourselves. When God speaks to Joshua:
- The people of Israel are preparing to enter the Promised Land.
- Joshua is the newly appointed leader of a brand new nation.
- Moses, the former leader, has just died after he was kept from entering the Promised Land due to his disobedience.
- God is remaining faithful to a promise he made to Israel as part of the old covenant.
- The people have just been instructed to adhere to every letter of the Law of Moses.
- God is speaking directly to Joshua.
As we can see, God’s message to Joshua comes at a substantially different time and under substantially different circumstances than what we experience today.
3) Crossing the Principlizing Bridge
What is the theological principle in this text?
As God gives specific expressions to specific biblical audiences, he is also giving universal theological teachings for all of his people through these same texts.
–Duvall and Hays, Grasping God’s Word
In this step, it’s our goal to peel away the things that are different between the original text and our current culture. When we separate out what is different, what remains the same communicates to us the truth of Scripture. Duvall and Hays offer these guidelines for discerning the theological principles in a given text:
- The principle should be reflected in the text.
- The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
- The principle should not be culturally bound.
- The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
- The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.
Think back to Joshua 1:1-9. What principles can you take away from the text that apply to both you and Joshua/Israel?
For Duvall and Hays, the principles are as follows:
- To be effective in serving God and successful in the task to which he has called us, we must draw strength and courage from his presence.
- We must also be obedient to God’s Word, meditating on it constantly.
4) Consult the Biblical Map
How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
When writing out the theological principles of the text, we measure them up against the entire biblical map. In other words, Scripture cannot mean something that the rest of Scripture testifies against. Go back to the example of my old pastor’s sermon. Sacrificial giving does not ensure future earthly wealth. We can affirm this principle by looking at other passages in the Bible that align with this truth.
This is even more important when reading passages from the Old Testament. Because Jesus is the final and perfect revelation of God’s nature and divine will, we, as followers of Jesus, interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and his teachings.
If something in the OT seems to conflict with what Jesus reveals God to be, then we have to dig deeper into the text to see what else is going on. A lack of this type of diligent study has lead many to be confused by what appears to be polar opposite pictures of God between the Old and New Testaments.
5) Grasping the Text in Our Town
How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
Finally, we take the theological principles from the ancient text and wrestle with how they apply to modern Christians in the church.
Duvall and Hays state that “while for each passage there will usually be only a few (and often only one) theological principles relevant for all Christians today, there will be numerous applicational possibilities.”
Since Christians live in a variety of contexts, it is possible that the timeless theological principles of a text concerning a subject may have numerous potential applications. What the Bible says about persecution will have different applications for me based on whether I live in the United States, Russia, or Syria.
For the passage from Joshua 1:1-9, Duvall and Hays offer several potential applications:
- Loyal followers of Jesus should spend time meditating on God’s Word.
- If God calls you to a new, scary ministry, then be strengthened and encouraged by his empowering presence. Be obedient, keeping a focus on the Scriptures.
- If you are in a church leadership position, realize that successful Christian leadership requires strength and courage that flows from the presence of God.
Respecting the “Text in Their Town”
Every student at my university had to learn about these five basic steps in biblical interpretation their freshman year. For us Biblical Studies majors, it was only the beginning. If you were paying attention to the blueprint above, you’ll notice that a lot of the interpretive weight falls on step one: grasping the text in their town.
For many of us, this step relies on the work of others. When we want to grasp the text in its original context we turn to commentaries, concordances, biblical surveys, atlases, and books to gain the neccesary information.
However, for thousands of scholars, their life’s work is focused on bringing clarity to what the text meant in its original context. They don’t have a concordance for their work on the latest concordance. At some point, they have to rely on raw data, make careful assumptions, and check it against the work of scholars in the past.
The continued archeological work in the Holy Lands, the discovery of ancient manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the intensive study of ancient Koine Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew texts have lead the scholarly biblical community into a golden age of discovery. But these discoveries have also raised new questions about how Jesus, his disciples, and the early church fathers viewed the world.
For us, that means that every time we approach Scripture we have to approach it with humility. We have to recognize that we probably don’t have all the answers. Unlike when I was a kid in Sunday School, I’m much more hesitant to raise my hand nowadays. Not because I know less than I did back then – I’ve actually learned quite a lot – but because I better understand how important it is that I get things right.
For some people, their allegiance to Christ will depend on whether they hear and understand the timeless truths of Scripture or a bastardization of the Gospel. It’s best that I know what those truths are – and how to articulate them clearly.