This is the twenty-ninth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Just released: A Book of Prayers for Kids by Mel Lawrenz (a perfect gift for the kids you know and love).
Here are a few basic principles of the interpretation of Scripture. If followed, we will get out of the Bible what God put into it, which is the only thing we should be interested in. If we want to read into Scripture our own preconceived opinions, then we might as well be using a novel or a biography or a cookbook instead of the Bible.
Simple and Natural
1. The simplest and most natural understanding of a biblical passage is always the best.
Because God chose to use human authors in writing the words of Scripture instead of dropping the Bible from the sky, we are supposed to read those words the way communication through words normally happens. Paul wrote a letter to his friends in the city of Philippi and they read it, looking for the plain and simple meaning of what he intended to get across. If you get a letter from your mother, you open it, read it carefully and thoughtfully, assuming that she meant specific and concrete things by what she wrote. So it is with our reading of Jeremiah or Luke or Philippians. Ask yourself: what message was Jeremiah trying to get across to his listeners? What did Luke want people to get from his “orderly account”? What effect did Paul want his words about joy to have on his friends in Philippi?
Yes, of course there are statements in Scripture that are hard to understand, but we should focus on what is plain and clear, and trust that sooner or later we will understand more enigmatic sayings. Most of the Bible is straightforward when we take the time to read it carefully.
It Can Never Mean What It Never Meant
2. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.
We do not make the Bible meaningful; we discover its meaning. It is common for people to say “this passage means (such and such) to me,” but it would be far better for us to say “it seems like John meant (such and such), and here is how it applies to my life.” If we do anything in which we are importing meaning to the Bible instead of exporting meaning, then we are using the Bible as a writing tablet for our own preconceived ideas and opinions. Better to use clean paper for that than paper that is already printed on. We are putting words into God’s mouth, and then taking those words as authoritative. When friends do that to friends or kids to parents, we call it unfair and misleading. So it is with fanciful and arbitrary readings of Scripture. God has given us a body of truth that is wide enough and deep enough for a lifetime (no, for eternity!). We don’t need to add to it. And if we try to add to it, we end up confusing the essence of it.
The Way Words Work
3. Appreciate the figurative language of Scripture for what it means.
The Bible was written by dozens of authors over thousands of years in several different nations and in three different languages. Some of the Bible is history (like 1 Kings and 2 Kings), some is poetry (the Psalms), some is symbolic story (the parables), some is law (Deuteronomy). The figurative expressions of Scripture have a special directness. “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” “I am the good shepherd.” “Run the good race.” Such phrases plant truths squarely and solidly in our minds.
We should never consider figurative language, whether metaphor, symbol, or parable or any other figure, a second-best way of communicating meaning. When we do that, saying that we read the Bible “literally,” only admitting something is symbolic if we really need to, then we are showing how much the modern scientific worldview, where measurable things are all that matter, has shaped us.
We use the word “literal” in two different ways, unfortunately, which has caused some confusion. One day when my wife came in the house, drenching wet, and said, “it’s literally raining cats and dogs out there,” I couldn’t help but say: “you mean, literally? Are they poodles or German Shepherds or Tabbies?,” which, naturally, drew the usual bemused look from her. What she meant was “really raining,” which is not, technically, the meaning of “literally.” When someone says, I believe the Bible to be literally true, meaning “really true,” I’d agree with them. I would disagree with someone, however, who said that they believed the only proper reading of Scripture is that every detail is to be taken literally. Jesus is not literally a door.
No, we should let the symbols and figures of Scripture sound aloud the theological truths they point to. The Hebrews and the Greeks knew the power of metaphor and symbol, and so they could read that God is a rock or a fortress or a shepherd or a light in the darkness and just let the power of the truth sink in. And, more to the point, God chose to use language in all it’s varied forms to give us a revelation that has literal detail and figurative power, history with poetry.
[to be continued]
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.