On Biblical Interpretation

June 18, 2012

Biblical interpretation is an exciting pursuit for me. Call me a Bible geek, but I consider digging around in God’s Word to be thrilling. The Bible never ceases to amaze me. It has many layers which always inform, inspire, and involve me at every level.

One of my goals in biblical interpretation is accuracy. That is, to do my best to understand and present the biblical text as accurately as possible.  I want to communicate as completely as possible the meaning and message within each passage. I do not want to get in the way of the text. I do not want my bias to influence communicating the intent of the text.  I like the way John H. Walton is his book,  The Lost World of Genesis Onesays it:

Sound interpretation proceeds from the belief that the divine and human authors were competent communicators and that  we can therefore comprehend that communication. But to do so we must respect the integrity of the author by refraining from replacing his message with our own.  (page 19).

I have three rules I follow when studying a passage of Scripture that help me “respect the integrity of the author” of the text.

  • I remember that not a single verse in the Bible was originally written to me.  (Walton makes this point well in his book.) As I approach a biblical text I do so understanding that it was originally written for someone else in a completely different context then that of my own. This helps me to not insert me and my situation into the text before I ever attempt to discover the initial reason and purpose of the text.
  • Scripture cannot mean now what it did not mean then.  Therefore it is critically important that I work to uncover what it meant then. That is, I do my homework to find out the original purpose and setting of the text. If my text is in Ephesians, for instance, then I need to learn about who they were and what was happening in their situation. I need– as much as possible– to know why Paul wrote to them and what their context was. By so doing, I can better avoid trying to make the text say something it was never intended to say.
  • A text without a context is a pretext. I do not remember when and where I first heard this, but it is so true. Proper biblical interpretation will always factor in the context to help unpack the many layers of rich truth in each text.  If we ignore context we do so at our own peril when it comes to understanding text. Without context, we can manipulate Scripture, hold it hostage to our own bias, and pretty much make it say what we want. Again, this is why it is so crucial to do our homework; find out what the text first meant by placing in firmly in its original time and setting.

These three simple rules help keep me “honest” when approaching a text. Maybe they can be helpful to you as well. The goal of biblical interpretation is to “correctly handle the word of truth”  (2 Timothy 2:15) in order to present its message as accurately and honestly as possible so its full intent and impact can be discovered and lived out in our lives today.

If you would like more information about biblical interpretation there are many excellent resources available.  Here are a few I suggest:

  • Walton’s book: While not really a book on biblical interpretation per se, it does provide some real nuggets in the intro and first part of the book about biblical interpretation. His exploration of his topic is also an excellent example of researching the broader context of the setting of a text.
  • How to Read the Bible for All it is Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stewart: This is an easy-to-read resource that is extremely informative and practical. It is written so that everyone can benefit from reading it.
  • Toward an Exegetical Theology by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.  This is an older book, but it remains a standard when it comes to understanding biblical interpretation. If you are interested in digging a little deeper, then this book would be very helpful.
  • The Hermenutical Spiral by Grant R. Osbure.  Okay, if you are a geek about this like me, then here is your book.  It is textbook thorough. Plan to spend a little time with it.
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