Regular readers of the Bible come to a question like this over and over: “What does that mean?” It’s a great question! It demonstrates humility, an interest in learning, and the desire to read the text as the author intended.
This post is the first in a series on interpreting the Bible. Over the course of the series, I will discuss a number of different ‘tools’ or principles to keep in mind as you read the Bible. Some principles are more important than others, but they are all helpful.
Today, I begin with a beginning – the foundational ideas surrounding meaning in the text. Is there a meaning to be found, or do I make it up as I go? The easy method is not necessarily the best one. The easy method is just to find whatever meaning you want in the text that you’re reading. Thus, you create the meaning regardless of the author and, really, regardless of whatever text you’re looking at. I have known people who used such an extreme example of this method that I didn’t believe them, at first. For example, I was told about a particular question this particular young man wanted answered by God, who said that he had prayed a long time for an answer and couldn’t figure it out. His solution was to pick up his Bible, close his eyes, and flip the pages from front to back and picking a random spot to place his finger. He then read starting at whatever verse it was until he came across a verse that could potentially be read as an answer to his question.
I hope, dear theoretical reader, that I don’t need to tell you what a bad method that is. Do you read e-mails like that? You’re wondering what your boss wants out of this project, so you close your eyes and randomly pick a sentence? Of course not. Do you randomly pick an item on your grocery list and shop only for that and whatever comes after it? You’ll miss everything that comes before! Or what about a love note from your wife or husband? Do you read that letter in whatever order you want, rather than top to bottom? Do you pick only one sentence, enjoy it, and put that letter away for tomorrow?
Why would we read the Bible like that?
When you receive a communication from someone, you try to discern their meaning in that e-mail, list, instruction, etc. The Bible should be treated no differently. “Aha!” you might say. “But how do can we know the meaning of long-dead authors located in two continents??” This is exactly the reason I begin this series on interpreting the Bible – I believe we can know their meaning, or, at least, make very good guesses.
Although there are a number of good books out there about understanding the Bible, I am going to borrow the model published by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, professors at Ouchita Baptist University, in their book “Grasping God’s Word.” The model is a visual one, but I don’t own the copyright to their book, so I’ll convey the ideas with words! The Bible is information/communication from Their Town – that is, the “town” of the author(s) and the original biblical audience. We want to bring it to Our Town, to apply it in our contemporary contexts. The problem is that there is a River of Differences that separates each town, and it is filled with issues like the language(s) barrier, myriad cultural differences, the difference in time, ethnicity, geography, socio-economic status, genre understanding, and more. So we can’t just bring it straight from Their Town to Our Town. What we can do is build and cross the Principlizing Bridge, where – after understanding the text in Their Town – we carry the timeless principles from Their Town and apply them in Our Town.
The first step in interpreting the Bible is to know what you are reading. Are you looking at one of the Gospels? An Old Testament prophetic book? An epistle? A history? An apocalypse? If you are unsure what kind of book you are reading, start with the following chart.
(Side note: just because you find the overall genre of the book you’re in does not mean you’re done! Sub-genre is a topic I’ll discuss in another post.)
The genre of your text has a thorough influence on the text, creating and sometimes excluding options of meaning by virtue of its literary form. The genre used in the Bible you can see in the chart above, but a simpler list is thus: Gospel, Letter, History, Apocalypse, Narrative, Law, Poetry, Prophetic, and Wisdom. As the blog series goes on, I will discuss each genre in individual posts. Next time, however, is a discussion of the nitty-gritty of reading. Yes, dear theoretical reader, we will look at understanding sentences, paragraphs, and discourses! Guess what? Those things really are worth talking about!
That’s it for this post, but I leave you with a question. What is your favorite biblical genre to read? Personally, I love the straight-forward reading in the letters of the New Testament, but Gospel and Narrative are tied for a close second.