The following is a practical guide to biblical interpretation following a three step process that I have used for years. The Bible is two-thousand years old and often seems very archaic. This makes it hard to know how it applies to us. It can be very frustrating as all Christians are encouraged to read their Bible daily but often are at a loss as to how to understand it and apply the message to their own lives. This process has served me well and I believe it is representative of the best way to interpret the ancient word of God and apply it to today. I hope that it will alleviate some of the “Bible interpretation anxiety” that is out there, allowing the Bible to become real and relevant to your life.
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Notice the three sections of the chart. There are three audiences that everyone needs to recognize in the process of interpreting the Bible. In the bottom left, you have the “ancient audience.” This represents the original audience and the original author. The top portion represents the “timeless audience” which transcends the time and the culture of the original situation. It is that which applies to all people of all places of all times, without regard to cultural and historical issues. Finally, we have the “contemporary audience” in the bottom right. This represents the audience of today. Here we will find application of the Bible with regard to our time, culture, and circumstances.
In Biblical interpretation, it is of extreme importance that one goes in the order of the chart. The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. So many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s word. Others start with step number two, attempting to force their own theology on the text. It is important that all steps are covered to ensure interpretive fidelity.
Step one: Exegetical Statement
What did it mean then?
The first step is the most important. Here the goal is to ascertain the original intent of the writing. It is very important that one enters into the world of the author and the audience. Sometimes this will be easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, requiring quite a bit of study.
Here are the different issues that you must consider:
Historical issues: There will be historical circumstances that will aid in your understanding of the text. Here, you will ask questions of “occasion.” Who is the original author? Who is the original audience? What purpose did the writing have? When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what was his occasion or purpose? Was it to give an exhaustive history of the world to everyone or to prepare the Israelite religious community to exist in a theocratic society under Yahweh? When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, what was his purpose? Knowing that in 2 Corinthians he was writing to defend his apostleship as other false apostles were opposing him is essential to understanding every verse. As well, what was Paul’s disposition toward the Galatians when he wrote to them? Was it to commend, condemn, or correct? The occasion will determine so much of our understanding.
Grammatical issues: It is important to understand that the Bible was written in a different language. The New Testament was written in Greek. Not only that, but it was a particular kind of Greek called “Koine.” Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (small portions in Aramaic). Naturally, other languages will have characteristics that communicate well in the original tongue but can get lost in translation. Greek, for example, works off inflections (word endings) which determine their part of speech. Word placement can add emphasis. These types of things are often hard to translate. I am not saying that everyone needs to be a Greek and a Hebrew scholar to understand the Bible, only that there are grammatical issues that can nuance our understanding of the passage. A good commentary will normally bring these to recognition.
Contextual issues: Every book was written for a purpose. The smallest component of a writing is a letter. We don’t take each letter in isolation, but understand that with a group of letters, it makes a word. But we don’t take the word in isolation, understanding that a group of words makes a sentence. And we don’t take sentences in isolation, understanding that a group of sentences makes a paragraph. But we don’t stop there. Each paragraph either represents or is a part of a larger whole that we call a “pericope.” The pericope is the basic argument or story that is being told. The story of David and Goliath is a pericope of many paragraphs. As well, Christ’s parables make up individual pericopes. Finally, the pericopes are smaller parts of the entire book. The purpose of the book will shape the context in which each pericope should be interpreted.
Here is how it looks:
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Literary issues: We must remember that there is no such thing as a type of literature called “Bible” or “Scripture.” The Bible is made up of many books from many different types of literature called “genres.” Just like in your everyday life, you encounter many genres and know almost instinctively that they follow different rules of understanding. You have fiction novels, newspaper editorials, commercials, television dramas, academic textbooks, and tickers at the bottom of the news stations. All of these need to be understood and interpreted according to the rules of the genre. In the Bible, we have narratives, histories, parables, apocalyptic prophecies, personal letters, public letters, songs, proverbs, and many others. Each of these are to be interpreted according to the rules of the genre. Just because they are in the Bible does not mean that the rules change. For example, a proverb is a common type of literature that is found in the Bible, but also in many other cultures. A proverb is a statement of general truth or wisdom that does not necessarily apply in every situation. A proverb is not a promise. If it is in the Bible, it is still not a promise. As well, theological histories are just that—theological. Being in the Bible does not turn it into a technically precise and exhaustive history that is supposed to answer every question that we have. We must determine the type of literature we are dealing with if we are to understand it. Continue Reading →