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:\
- 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:
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”.