The Bible is God’s Word, yet it exists through human means. God’s commands appear to be absolute, yet some passages seem ambiguous. How can we understand the Scriptures correctly? That’s where hermeneutics comes in: the theory and methodology of interpreting the Bible.
Bible Gateway interviewed Craig Blomberg about the book he co-authored with William W. Klein and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: 3rd Edition (Zondervan, 2017).
Why does the Bible need to be interpreted? Why can’t it simply be read at face-value?
Craig Blomberg: Some of it can be. But many things can mean very different things depending on the context, as is true of all acts of communication. My wife says, “Boy, it’s hot in here.” It sounds like it’s a statement but it’s actually a request for me to turn the heat down. Paul says, “Be angry but sin not,” but it’s not a command! It means “if you are angry, don’t sin.”
Poetry rarely can be read at face-value; it’s different from prose. Do you want to take “the trees of the field clap their hands” as literal? And what do we do with other literary forms or genres? Parables, proverbs, prophecy, psalms, and even things that don’t start with “p” are interpreted differently once we realize what they are.
What’s the challenge of “distance” when it comes to biblical interpretation?
Craig Blomberg: Distance involves both space and time. Our culture today is hardly the same as that in rural Kazakhstan. Now go not only half-way across the world but back in time by two millennia. If someone comes to you at midnight do you call out to your neighbor for three loaves of bread like in Jesus’ parable of the friend at midnight? If not, why did they back then? How do you tell what was culturally normal or what was unusual? Would it have been commonplace for people to be told, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her?” If not, this would have been striking for Christians to do it and stand out as particularly important and emphatic.
What does it mean to speak of the canon of Scripture?
Craig Blomberg: It means you’re going to have a blast—just kidding! That kind of cannon has two n’s in it.
A canon was a measuring rod or stick. The canon of Scripture refers to the collection of books deemed by a particular religious group as uniquely authoritative, inspired, and trustworthy. Protestants and Catholics have historically disagreed on the canon of the Old Testament but agreed on the canon of the New Testament. Christians throughout history have at times been imprisoned and even martyred for keeping books of the Bible or whole Bibles when told to surrender them to political authorities. It then becomes pretty important to decide if you’re willing to suffer and die for certain books. If so, which ones?
How and why were the 66 books considered to be the ones to make up the Protestant Bible?
Craig Blomberg: The 39 books of the Protestant canon match those of the Hebrew Bible. This would have been the Bible of Jesus, the Jew, and of the 12 apostles, all Jewish. Jews in turn believed all these books were uniquely prophetic in the broad sense of that term as proclaiming God’s word.
The 27 books of the New Testament were all written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle; they were all understood as completing the story of the Hebrew Bible and telling a coherent, consistent message of that fulfillment; and they were all widely found to be uniquely useful throughout all major portions of the early church. In other words, they weren’t sectarian literature emerging out of, and valued only by, one small group of Christians. These are the criteria of apostolicity, consistency, and catholicity.
How is biblical interpretation both a science and an art?
Craig Blomberg: It’s a science in that there are rules to follow and principles to apply. Don’t assume a parable narrates something that actually happened. Recognize that apocalyptic is filled with symbols. Expect a lot of metaphors in poetry. Don’t treat a proverb as an exception-less absolute.
It’s an art because the rules can’t be applied mechanically or unthinkingly. Some texts seem only partly poetic. Some images in apocalyptic are literal. Prose also can contain figures of speech. Sometimes we just don’t know enough about the historical or cultural context of a book or passage to be sure we can grasp the mind of the original author. Was an original passage intended to be timeless in its application or situation-specific? We gain a feel for certain kinds of writing and a certain author’s style and we intuit answers as well as deduce them. Sometimes we might be wrong.
What are the literary genres in which the books of the Bible are written and why is it important to keep these in mind when interpreting the Bible?
Craig Blomberg: In the New Testament alone there are Gospels, acts, epistles, and an apocalypse. Gospels contain literary forms like miracles, parables, pronouncements, proverbs, farewell discourses, annunciations, and so on. Epistles (letters) can be apologetic, commendatory, friendship-oriented, exhortational, diatribes, and more.
With every literary genre or form come some conventional expectations that the biblical authors either follow or deviate from. The latter stand out as more striking and emphatic. In 21st century news headlines, “Holy Family Crushes Sacred Heart,” may lead an immigrant into thinking they’re reading about some bizarre religious ritual. Americans familiar with the names of Catholic High Schools seeing the headline under “Sports” will have a very different take on things!
You write that “the essential qualification for a full understanding of the Bible is to know God and to believe that he is speaking through it.” Please explain.
Craig Blomberg: The key here is how we understand “understanding.” A careful, even-handed scholar who’s an agnostic can learn the ancient languages, cultures, the principles of human communication, and the practices of interpreting literature and tell you very clearly what a biblical writer was claiming. That kind of understanding does not depend on any form of faith.
But the Bible itself claims that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. “Full” understanding as Scripture “understands” it (!) means acting on the truths one reads and interprets. By definition it therefore means that we believe in the God that the Bible discloses and we believe what the Bible discloses about itself—that it is “God-breathed.”
How should a Christian respond to someone who doesn’t believe objective truth exists and therefore refuses to accept the Bible’s message as ultimate truth?
Craig Blomberg: Ask them if it’s ok to murder them? They might think that was objectively wrong. Or maybe say, “If blue skies eat jabberwocky, won’t beer become snails?” When they look at you as if you’ve gone mad, ask them if that wasn’t an appropriate response to their claim that there is no objective truth. After all, you interpreted their words as meaning that “jabberwocky actually eats blue skies so that snails become beer,” and you needed to refute them. If there’s no objective interpretation of their words, then why couldn’t that be what they meant? In other words, no one actually lives as if there is no objective truth. We all want to be understood and think it possible to be understood.
Sports is another good example. We want instant replays that can slow things down to determine if a receiver’s toe scraped a millimeter of chalk on the sidelines or not because we believe in objective truth. Either someone caught the ball inbounds or not and, if they did, especially if the person was on our team, we want that to be accurately reflected by the referees’ decision!
Of course, it’s one thing to say objective truth exists and it’s something quite different to say I have the ability to determine it in all situations. I don’t. Then all I can hope for is a close approximation. If I can’t get a very close approximation, I have to admit it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ever get close approximations or that I can’t get close approximations often enough to be able to understand oral or written communication.
The Bible may be more than an ordinary human book but it’s not less, and the same principles therefore apply in interpreting it as in interpreting what my wife wants me to do. Only the stakes are even higher!
What is the goal of biblical interpretation?
Craig Blomberg: To approximate as closely as possible the original meaning of a biblical author through the text that he wrote to an original audience, and then to apply it to myself in ways that fit that meaning but take into consideration my contemporary context.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Craig Blomberg: It’s probably the best online resource for consulting multiple Bible translations in multiple languages available in the world today, whether or not you ever read additional interviews like this one. If you do read them, then that’s just an added bonus.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Craig Blomberg: Never take biblical interpretation lightly. Never assume you’ve arrived or learned all that you can. Be a lifelong learner, but always apply what you’re learning to yourself in real-life situations. Accurate interpretation is meant to lead to obedience.
Bio: Craig L. Blomberg (PhD, Aberdeen) is distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He’s the author, co-author, or co-editor of numerous books, including Interpreting the Parables, Can We Still Believe the Bible?, and NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, and more than 130 articles in journals or multi-author works. A recurring topic of interest in his writings is the historical reliability of the Scriptures. Craig and his wife, Fran, have two daughters and reside in Centennial, Colorado.
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