There is a great book by Gordon Fee titled, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.” It’s a fairly readable introduction on the topic of Biblical Hermeneutics (Biblical Interpretation). In fact, it’s so popular that it has been required reading at most of the bible colleges, seminaries, and other institutes I have attended. It’s an extremely helpful tool and I recommend it for the library of anyone who enjoys studying Scripture.
Recently I was reflecting on the book of Psalms, the entire purpose and content of the book not any psalm in particular, and it got me thinking about how many promises found in the book are lifted completely out of their context and applied to memes and other issues which are in no way related to the original intent of the promise(s). As a result, it reminded of the multitude of ways people misinterpret Scripture so I decided it would be important to discuss a few of these and point out how they create problematic issues.
All of this brings about a point worth notating, before you can begin teaching a proper method of studying Scripture, it helps to point out improper ways in which people approach bible study. In his book, “The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible,” author and theologian Scot McKnight points out the flawed ways many people use to approach bible study. Within the book he points out five flawed ways many people go about reading God’s Word. I am going to piggy back off of his five points so we can learn to correct some of the erroneous ways people approach the interpretation of Scripture.
One: The Law, is the Law, is the Law.
look at just the Old Testament we find some 613 laws, or commandments, and for many people this tends to be all they see when interpreting Scripture. To these people the Bible is used as a book of rules to be obeyed, or laws that must be enforced. This reason plays a key role in why so many young people drop out of church as soon as they are old enough. They’ve been conditioned to see Scripture as nothing more than a list of “Do’s” and “Do Nots” that can be applied for any and every situation.
There are several problems with this approach. To start, it is legalism in its worst form, and further, not a single one of us really obeys – or even tries to obey – every commandment contained in Scripture. I’m not just talking about the outlandish items found in Leviticus and the like, I’m also referring to many New Testament statements as well: foot washing (John 13:14); the instructions to not wear jewelry (1 Pet. 3:3), and most believers make no attempt to obey these two passages. We are very selective about which commands we will follow and which we can ignore (and there are legitimate reasons for this in many cases, but that’s for another time).
Two: Blessings, are blessings, are blessings.
Coming to the Bible with this approach, seeing it as a book of promises and blessings, leads to the serious problem of “sentimentality” (as McKnight calls it). One thing that attributed to this was when the Bible was organized it made it much simpler to locate and study a specific passage. But what this also did was make it possible to lift short passages, sentences, and/or phrases out of their context. Context is of the utmost importance. So the result of lifting things from their context is that we forget these blessings or promises “emerge from a real life’s story that also knows that we live in a broken world and some days are tough.”* Focusing on blessings and promises alone leads to a warped view of Scripture. It might make you feel the warm fuzzies all of the time, but the Bible is a whole lot more than comfortable, uplifting phrases from God to help get us through the day.
Three: It’s About Me
How many of you have heard about the Rorschach Ink Blot tests. It’s a tool we use in therapy to learn more about our client. Rorschach developed these ink blots and what is done is they are held up and the client is asked to identify what image they see in the “picture.” The fact is the ink blots are not really images of anything. What the client interprets them to be tells us more about the client than the blot of ink. In a similar fashion, McKnight “notes that many people tend to project their own ideas onto biblical texts rather than see what is actually there.”**
With the help of experience, personality tests, studies, and other professionals the results come out the same, “…everyone thinks Jesus is like them! ‘The personality test[s] illustrates a pervasive Bible reading problem.’ ‘Instead of being swept into the Bible’s story, Rorschach thinkers sweep the Bible up into their own story.’”
In other words, they interpret the Bible, despite its origins, culture, history, etc., through their own eyes and experiences, not necessarily within the whole context of which the entire Bible was written over thousands of years.
Four: The Systematic Theology Lens
Before I start let me make it clear I am a proponent of Systematic Theology. In fact, it’s one of my areas of what one might call “expertise.” For me, I couldn’t emphasize the importance of a systematic theology enough. However, with that said, let me continue with the following warning as using it as an interpretation method in and of itself.
Some people see the Bible as some sort of a giant jigsaw puzzle. They hold that God scattered different facts all throughout Scripture and all of these truths need to be captured and packed into nifty little categories. So, these pieces are put together into a “systematic theology without ambiguity that explains God, humanity, creation, and history.”*** The inherent problem here though is much like the ink blot results, there is a risk of creating a theology that fits right into their preconceived ideas.
McKnight worries that this may result in large portions of Scripture which don’t get included because they don’t fit into the neatly created categories. He also encourages us to examine the theologies of “major church traditions – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, and so on.”**** When we do this, and I concur, we realize that each school of thought does indeed highlight on incredibly important and accurate biblical ideas. However, McKnight also states, “you will also see that each one deemphasizes or even ignores something important to the other groups…No one’s puzzle is perfect.*****
Five: One Book Says It All
Some people tend to have a favorite book of the Bible and they attempt to interpret every other part of the Bible through the lens of that particular book. Liberation Theologians tend to look to Exodus, Pentecostals to Acts, and Reformed Theologians and pastors to the book of Romans. Some constantly appeal to the four Gospels and how they point to the kingdom of God, yet the shy away from the most prolific of New Testament authors, Paul, because he doesn’t write about the kingdom. So, as expected, they force the epistles to fit into the Gospels only through their lens. And, it’s just as bad when the only knowledge of Jesus one will recognize is if it’s read through Paul’s writings only.
This approach to Bible study causes us to miss a lot. By doing this we ignore all of the diverse voices God used to speak to us through, the varying perspectives, and the different contexts found throughout Scripture.
Limiting our knowledge of the Bible by following one of these five flaws limits our understanding and also makes us guilty of not accepting the Bible on its own terms. McKnight’s motto: “Let the Bible be the Bible.”
Conclusion: The Bible as Story
Ultimately the Bible is a story, the most important story. It’s one story but it contains numerous layers within. We find the incredible overarching narrative that takes us from Generation to Revelation, and within that story are a plethora of other stories. The gospel story is so incredibly deep, essential, beyond, and wide, God used a wide variety of expressions so as to give us a “fuller picture of the Story.”******
He used a variety of genres, metaphors, perspectives, and themes in creating the Bible. This allowed God to speak to Moses in “Moses’ days in Moses’ ways, in Micah’s days in Micah’s ways, and in Jesus’ days in Jesus’ ways.”******* And it keeps us from placing one book or author in a higher position than any of the others.
*”How Not to Read the Bible: Insights from Theologian Scot McKnight,” by Skye Jethani in “Christianity Today,” (April, 2009), p.R3.
This was a guest post from Dr. Jeff Hagan.
Jeff is an ordained Christian minister with over 23 years of ministry experience. He has attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary, Tyndale Seminary and a handful of other institutes as well. He has earned several degrees including the Doctor of Christian Education and the Doctor of Theology.