Interpreting the Bible Responsibly
Interpreting the Bible Responsibly
Serious Bible Study Isn’t for Sissies
The goal of Bible study isn’t to get a spiritual buzz
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Any student of Scripture who really believes the Bible is God’s message to humanity will be emotionally moved from time to time at the wonder of why and how God maintains a loving interest in us. That’s normal for someone who really understands the spiritual implications of Scripture. So I’m not suggesting emotional responses are antithetical to serious engagement with the Bible. What I am suggesting, though, is that if you’re doing Bible study to feel a particular way, or get some spiritual high, then your Bible study is too self-focused.
Nowhere are we taught in the Bible to “search the Scriptures to feel a certain way.” Ultimately, Scripture is about God—what he did, what he is doing, and what he will do—not about you. You’ll never appreciate God’s story if your story—and solving your problems—is what you focus on when you study Scripture. Comprehending God’s story can go a long way toward addressing your problems, but the reverse will never be true. Serious Bible study that transcends self-therapy is about mastering the inspired text. You either want that or you don’t. If you do, you’ll be willing to put in the time and be willing to constantly reevaluate your work and your thinking.
Paying attention to detail and thinking clearly are not antithetical to loving Jesus
Early in my own spiritual journey, I was consumed with knowing Scripture. I’d ask questions, listen to answers, and then follow up with more questions. Sometimes it irritated people. I recall several instances in church or home Bible studies where I was scolded about obsessing over the Bible. After all, I was told, the real point of Bible study was learning about Jesus and how to follow him.
I disagreed then and I still do. The answer to why women who had their periods were considered unclean (Lev 15:19–24), or what the Urim and Thummim were (Exod 28:30), or why some English translations of John 5 don’t include verse 4 in the chapter have nothing to do with Jesus. The fact that they’re in the Bible means they’re just as inspired as any passage that is about Jesus.
Bible study is about learning what this thing we say is inspired actually means. Knowing what all its parts mean will give us a deeper appreciation for the salvation history of God’s people, and the character of God. Jesus is the core component of all that, but there’s a lot more to those things than the story of his life, death, and resurrection; his parables; and the Sermon on the Mount. If that was all God wanted us to know, he’d have given us only the four gospels. It’s pretty evident he had more in mind.
If you’ve watched a baseball or football game on American television at some point, you no doubt have seen players either ask God for success or thank him for it. Athletes today regularly do things like point to the heavens after crossing home plate or finding themselves in the end zone. Some will bow in a short prayer. It’s a nice sentiment and, for many, a testimony that transcends a token gesture.
But let’s be honest. Unless that football player gets in shape and memorizes the playbook, all the pointing to heaven in the world isn’t going to lead to success. You can say a short prayer on the mound or in the batter’s box, but unless you can hit the curveball, you’re going to fail—perhaps spectacularly.
It’s the same in Bible study. All too often people who sincerely want the feeling of knowing Scripture aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to get there. Instead, they’ll take short cuts and then expect the Spirit to take up the slack. The assumption seems to be that the promise of the Spirit to guide us into truth means he’ll excuse a lack of effort and give us the answers we need. The third person of the Trinity isn’t the boy sitting next to you in high school that lets you cheat off his exam.
Rather than substitute the Spirit for personal effort, ask the Spirit for insight to expose flawed thinking (your own and that of whomever you’re reading) when you’re engaged in Bible study. The more of God’s word you’ve devoted attention to, the more the Spirit has to work with.
Getting Serious—and Being Honest—about Interpreting the Bible in Context
Anyone interested in Bible study, from the new believer to the biblical scholar, has heard (and maybe even said) that if you want to correctly interpret the Bible, you have to interpret it in context. I’m certainly not going to disagree. But I have a question: What does that mean? Put another way, just what context are we talking about?
There are many contexts to which an interpreter needs to pay attention.
• Historical context situates a passage in a specific time period against the backdrop of certain events.
• Cultural context concerns the way people lived and how they thought about their lives and their world.
• Literary context focuses on how a given piece of biblical literature conforms (or not) to how the same type of literature was written during biblical times.
All of these are important—but they only flirt with the heart of the matter. There’s a pretty clear element to this “context talk” that we’re missing. It’s time to get a firm grasp on something obvious. Believe it or not, it took years of study before I had it fixed in my head and my heart.
The Bible’s True Context
As Christians, whether consciously or otherwise, we’ve been trained to think that the history of Christianity is the true context for interpreting the Bible. It isn’t. That might be hard to hear, but Christian history and Christian thought is not the context of the biblical writers, and so it cannot be the correct context for interpreting what they wrote.
The proper context for interpreting the Bible is not the church fathers. They lived a thousand years or more after most of the Old Testament was written. Less than a half dozen of them could read Hebrew. The New Testament period was a century or more removed from important early theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian; Augustine, arguably the most famous early church figure, lived three hundred years after the conversion of Paul. That’s more time than has elapsed since the founding of the United States. Also, many church fathers worked primarily with the Old Testament translated into Greek, Latin, or Syriac versions, so a good bit of their exegesis is translation-driven. Further, they were often responding to the intellectual issues of their own day when they wrote about Scripture, not looking back to the biblical context.
The farther down the timeline of history one moves, the greater the contextual gap becomes. The context for interpreting the biblical text is not the Catholic Church. It is not the rabbinic movements of Late Antiquity or the Middle Ages. It is not the Reformation—the time of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists. It is not the time of the Puritans. It is not evangelicalism in any of its flavors. It is not the modern world at all.
So what is the proper context for interpreting the Bible? Here’s the transparently obvious truth I was talking about: the proper context for interpreting the Bible is the context of the biblical writers—the context that produced the Bible. Every other context is alien or at least secondary.
Bridging the Context Gap
The biblical text was produced by people living in the ancient Near East and around the Mediterranean between the second millennium BC and the first century AD. To understand how biblical writers thought, we need to tap into that context. We need to get the worldview of the ancient world, shared by the biblical writers, into our heads.
As certain as this observation is, there is a pervasive tendency in the believing Church to filter the Bible through creeds, confessions, and denominational preferences. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a human thing. Creeds are useful for distilling important points of theology. But they are far from the whole counsel of God, and even farther from the biblical world. This is something to be aware of at all times.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing that we should ignore our Christian forefathers. I’m also not saying that we’re smarter. They were prodigious intellects. The problem isn’t their brain power—it’s that they were simply too removed from the world of the biblical writers and had little chance of bridging that gap.
It might sound odd, but we’re actually in a better position than any of our spiritual forefathers in that respect. We live at a time when the languages of the major civilizations that flourished during the lifetimes of the biblical writers have been deciphered. We can tap into the intellectual and cultural output of those civilizations. That output is enormous—millions of words. We can recover the worldview context (their “cognitive framework” in scholar-speak) of the biblical writers as never before. The same is true of the New Testament writers because they inherited what had come before them and were part of a first century world two thousand years removed from us.
Think about it. How would anyone living a thousand years from now understand something you wrote unless they could get inside your head and see the world as you do? They’d need your frame of reference. They’d need to know what was going on in the wider world that potentially concerned, angered, encouraged, or depressed you. They’d need to understand the pop culture of your day to be able to parse why you’re using this word and not that one, or to properly process an expression. There’s no way to do that unless they recover your frame of reference. That is what it means to interpret in context.
I know firsthand this is a hard lesson. It isn’t easy to put the biblical context ahead of our traditions. But if we don’t do that, we ought to stop talking about how important it is to interpret the Bible in context lest we be hypocrites. I can honestly say that the day I decided to commit myself to framing my study of Scripture in the context of the biblical world instead of any modern substitute was a day of liberation. It’s what put me on a path to reading the Bible again—for the first time. You can do that, too. Don’t believe me? Stay tuned.
Sincerity and the Supernatural
In the previous article, I noted that the right context for interpreting the Bible accurately isn’t the history of Christianity in any of its creedal distillations or denominational forms. But I went even further—I said that the biblical context isn’t any modern world context, period. The right context for understanding the Bible is the context that produced the Bible. That seems simple, but experience has taught me that commitment to this patently obvious truth isn’t easy.
The biblical context includes its supernaturalism. The biblical writers believed in an active, animate spiritual world. That world was home to a lot more than the triune God, angels, Satan, and demons. It included other gods (i.e., the gods of the nations were not merely idols) and territorial spiritual beings that were not demons—and were, in fact, superior to demons. It included what we think of as ghosts, who could appear visibly, and even physically, and communicate to the embodied living world of which they had once been a part (1 Sam 28:3–20). For the biblical writers, divine beings could eat, drink, fight, and produce offspring with humans (Gen 6:1–4; 18:1–8; 19:1–11; 32:22–32; Num 13:32–33; 2 Pet 2:4–10; Jude 6–7).
Facing Up to the Bible’s “Weird” Passages
In the biblical worldview, the supernatural unseen realm had its own pecking order. Scripture never says that such intelligent beings always had the same agenda, either. The members of the heavenly host were also created in God’s image (the plurality language of Gen 1:26 isn’t about the Trinity), so they possess free will, the ability to make decisions. Their acts and attitudes are not programmed and predestined. They believe they can defeat the plans of God, or at least forestall them indefinitely, at great pain to him and great cost to humanity (eternal and otherwise).
Let’s face it—we just don’t think like that. The above isn’t the supernatural world of most Christian traditions. That doesn’t matter if we’re sincere about reading Scripture through the cognitive framework of its writers and original intended audience. But in many cases, especially in evangelical biblical scholarship, the supernatural thinking of the biblical writers has been something to explain away or avoid. I’ve seen it hundreds of times over the course of twenty years of sustained focused study as a biblical scholar. There are many creative ways to explain away what the text plainly says in various “weird” passages. But understanding Scripture isn’t about making it palatable or comfortable to modern readers. It’s about discerning what the biblical writer believed and was seeking to communicate to readers who thought the same way.
Are We Sincere about Biblical Authority?
To be blunt, most Christians think themselves believers in the supernatural because they believe in the Trinity, Satan, angels, and demons. They profess Christ and believe in God—and that’s the extent of what they truly think is real in terms of the supernatural. They affirm what they need to affirm to call themselves Christians. The rest is too scary or weird or seems simply superstitious.
When it comes to the supernatural, the question for every Christian who says they believe in biblical inspiration and authority to ask themselves is simple: How much of what biblical characters and writers believed about the supernatural world do I believe? Put negatively: How much of what biblical characters and writers believed about the supernatural world do I feel comfortable dismissing as a modern person? The answer to these questions will tell you how serious you are about biblical authority on such matters.