This post comes from Gordon Fee, Douglas Stuart, and Mark Strauss’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth online course (save $20 when you enroll before 11:59 pm EDT on Sept. 28, 2018).
By Mark Strauss
Have you ever heard someone say, “You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what it says.” Maybe you’ve even said this yourself.
Usually, such a remark reflects a protest against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school teacher, who by “interpreting” seems to be taking the Bible away from the common person. It’s their way of saying that the Bible is not an obscure book. “After all,” it’s argued, “the problem with too many preachers and teachers is that they dig around so much they tend to muddy the waters. What was clear to us when we read it isn’t so clear anymore.”
There’s a lot of truth in this protest. We agree that Christians should learn to read, believe, and obey the Bible. And we especially agree that the Bible need not be an obscure book if read and studied properly.
In fact we’re convinced that the single most serious problem people have with the Bible is not with a lack of understanding but with the fact that they understand many things too well! For example, with such a text as “Do everything without grumbling or arguing” (Phil 2:14), the problem is not understanding it but obeying it — putting it into practice.
We’re also agreed that the preacher or teacher is all too often prone to dig first and look later, and thereby at times to cover up the plain meaning of the text, which often lies on the surface.
Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before.
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text,” the author’s intended meaning. And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is an enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of what is written. Correct interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.
Because the Bible is God’s message, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture. Because it’s the word of God, we must listen — and obey.
But because God chose to speak his word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity. Each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (and in some cases also by the oral history it had before it was written down).
Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the “tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.
There are some, of course, who believe that the Bible is merely a human book, and that it contains only human words in history. For these people the task of interpreting is limited to historical inquiry. Their interest, as with reading Cicero or Milton, is with the religious ideas of the Jews, Jesus, or the early church. The task for them, therefore, is purely a historical one. What did these words mean to the people who wrote them? What did they think about God? How did they understand themselves?
On the other hand, there are those who think of the Bible only in terms of its eternal relevance. Because it’s the word of God, they tend to think of it only as a collection of propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed — although invariably there’s a great deal of picking and choosing among the propositions and imperatives.
There are, for example, Christians who, on the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing”), argue that a woman should not wear slacks or shorts, because these are deemed to be “men’s clothing.” But the same people seldom take literally the other imperatives in this list, which include building a parapet around the roof of one’s house (v. 8), not planting two kinds of seeds in a vineyard (v. 9), and making tassels on the four corners of one’s cloak (v. 12).
The Bible, however, is not a series of propositions and imperatives; it’s not simply a collection of “Sayings from Chairman God,” as though he looked down on us from heaven and said: “Hey you down there, learn these truths. Number 1, There is no God but One, and I am that One. Number 2, I am the Creator of all things, including humankind” — and so on.
These propositions of course are true, and they’re found in the Bible (though not quite in that form). Indeed such a book might have made some things easier for us. But, fortunately, that’s not how God chose to speak to us.
Rather, he chose to speak his eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history.
This also is what gives us hope. Precisely because God chose to speak in the context of real human history, we may take courage that these same words will speak again and again in our own “real” history, as they have throughout the history of the church.
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This course will help you more fully understand the Bible. And it will make reading the Bible more meaningful. Click here to sign up for the course (save $20 when you enroll before 11:59 pm EDT on Sept. 28, 2018).
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