Skip to main content

4 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Interpreting Scripture

When reading the bible, do you have any method to the madness of interpreting what it means? Some people do and some people don’t. Here is almost everything you need to know about studying scripture in a responsible way.  


#1 // the bible did not write itself

Imagine that you find a letter written thousands of years ago buried in a collection of books you inherited from your uncle when he died. It’s not written in your language and is addressed to a group of people you know nothing about. You would make a few assumptions about this letter:\
- someone wrote it
- they had a reason for writing it
- someone received it
- it made sense to them when they read it

Sometimes people remove the bible from these assumptions – but it is a collection of Holy Spirit breathed letters, narratives, and poems written by real people, usually to identified, specific people. The authors knew they were writing God’s truth but didn’t know their writings would one day be read by you. I know this sounds a bit abrasive, but Romans was not written to you. It was written to the church in Rome in the first century. Paul wrote that letter for obvious and stated reasons – and everything he said was Spirit inspired according to what the church at Rome needed to hear.


#2 // a text should never mean what it never meant

In the above scenario, it would be irresponsible to remove that letter from its context and apply it directly to yourself. We could make the letter say something it never actually said. There is both historical and literary context to consider when reading scripture and ignoring that responsibility can leave us on shaky ground. We all make cultural assumptions and read things into scripture based on our personal biases and backgrounds – and the only way to make sure you don’t read something into the text that was never there is to do the hard work of looking at context.

The anti-intellectual community within the church disregards this whole concept as unnecessary. Like many Christians they generally use something called the “reader response method” which is basically interpretation based on the reader’s perception of the text (versus the author’s intent). The scary thing about this method is that pretty much anyone can make the text say whatever they want it to say with no basis for accountability. There is also something called the “historical-critical method” which is the most academic method but allows rationalism and naturalism to challenge the authoritative nature of the text – which means it’s a pretty dangerous method in my opinion.

I personally support the “historical-grammatical method” which generally approaches scripture with these 4 questions:

- Who is the text written to or for?
- What did the text mean for the original audience?
- What are the differences between the original audience and today’s audience?
- Is there a theological theme or principle that will bridge the gap between us?

And whatever theme or principle you gather must be reflected in the text, not tied to a specific situation, unbound culturally, correspondent to the rest of the scripture, and relevant to both the biblical and contemporary audience.


#3 // every version of the bible is an interpretation

Remember how the letter you found in your uncles book wasn’t written in your language? That means someone has to translate it. And if you haven’t learned that language yourself, you would by default be subject to the person you’d have to hire to do the translation.

The bible was not written in English. It was written primarily in Hebrew and Greek -- and Jesus spoke a different language called Aramaic. All these languages are very different than ours. For example, Hebrew is read from right to left, uses symbols, and doesn’t use vowels. What many people fail to realize is that translators must make exegetical decisions when they translate the text into the receptor language and you are subject to those decisions if you cannot read the original language. We call those translations, “versions”. And there are 3 different theories of translation that account for all the bibles on your shelf:
- Verbal Equivalent: Try to reproduce the equivalent of the words, sentence structure, etc.
NASB, NJB, NKJV, KJV

- Paraphrase: Try to reproduce the authors meaning using modern language, adds a lot of words
NEB, THE MESSAGE, NCV

- Dynamic Equivalent: Emphasis on reproducing the functional meaning of the ancient words with freedom to rearrange the order of the words in the target language.
NLT, GNB, NAB, NCB

- Hybrid: combine the V and D theories and are my personal preference for reading, studying.
NIV, NRSV, ESV, HCSB

More detailed information at http://www.cokesbury.com/freedownloads/bibletransguide.pdf


#4 // the point is formation

There are a lot of people who can read the original languages and have studied the first century context in depth that don’t believe scripture is God-breathed. That is essentially useless. The point is not to memorize facts or phrases or references. The point is the formation of your character and the renewal of your mind. The pursuit of knowledge is secondary and should not be the driving force. Beginning in Genesis 1, the bible tells a story – the story – that you and I are involved in. The point is to determine whether or not you believe that story. And by believe I don’t mean “intellectual agreement”; I mean “heart transformation that translates into obedience”.  


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She's a Maneater: 5 reasons ministers are leaving 'the church' in record numbers

Every day men and women who had once felt commissioned by God to spend their life serving His church walk away from it. The statistics are staggering: anywhere from 60-80% of pastors leave full time ministry before they ever reach the 10 year mark. Many of these people don’t just quit their jobs; they lose all hope in the institutionalized church. Many go on to extend the kingdom in profound and creative ways. Others end up holding a deep disdain for anything remotely resembling the institutions that pushed them away. And still some who have been burned ‘stay’ but wrap themselves in the security blanket of isolation and routine. This is a devastating state of affairs.
Perhaps the greatest travesty in the western church is that we have so severely wounded and pushed away those who were most passionate about movement and reform. Why do the people who set out to serve us end up running from us? And why does the body of Christ not rush to these wounded ones to help them heal and recover …

The Modern Family

Homosexuality is one of the most polarizing issues in our world. The gay rights movement has been one of the most successful movements in recent memory, nailing their strategy of swinging the pendulum of an entire culture from “it’s unnatural” to “it’s completely normal” - from “we can’t talk about that” to “we see that every day” – all in less than 30 years. Homosexuality is also one of the most difficult issues to address in America because the minute anyone asks questions about it, they are profiled as close minded and unintelligent, ridiculed for holding such an ‘old fashioned’ view. It has gotten to a point where very few people will voice their opposition to the movement for fear of who they might offend or how they might be ridiculed.

I am not going to talk about homosexuals here; rather homosexuality. After all, one of the strokes of genius for the gay rights movement was to make it impossible to talk about the issue of homosexuality apart from “attacking” real people. Their s…

If Jesus has to be first, I would like to be second (4 myths about church leadership)

Myth #1 / I am the head of Christ’s body

We are becoming obsessed with church leadership. Entire movements and organizations have been built on teaching people how to become better leaders. I got caught up in this culture for a long time. It is one that relies heavily on the sentiment that every local church needs a strong visionary leader at its forefront in order to be successful – a sort of Moses if you will. But Moses never wanted the job in the first place. He didn’t feel qualified and the truth is that He wasn’t. However, that is precisely the point. The people who play the most significant roles in the story are typically those that didn’t really do anything of themselves. Rather, God accomplished things through them that they clearly could have never done on their own strength.
What every local church needs is leaders who are becoming increasingly dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and who submit to the headship of Jesus. Nearly every church leader would…