"What does the text mean?" and other unhelpful questions

"What does the text mean?" and other unhelpful questions December 17, 2013

If we want to find the meaning of a biblical text, what things are not so helpful?whenyouonlyhavebible

For the first post in the series “When You Only Have a Bible,” click here.

What Is Not Very Helpful

People often learn an inductive approach to interpretation, which consists in three steps: “Observation, Interpretation, Application.”  What’s the problem with this? It actually never tells you how to interpret the Bible. There is an “interpretation” step within the methodology itself. People are still not told what to look for and what tangible steps should be taken in what order.

I have seen other tools that are not bad; nevertheless, they are a bit arbitrary and may even emphasize application without fully handling the question of interpretation.

For example, some people teach the acronym SPECKA, which stands for:

S = Sin (Is there a sin to confess?)

P = Promise (Is there a promise from God?)

E = Example (Is there an example to follow?)

C = Commands (Are there commands to obey?)

K = Knowledge (What does this passage teach us about God? ourselves? others?)

A = Accountability (Where do we need accountability?)

Another common set of questions include:

What does it say?

What does it mean?

What does it mean to me personally?

How can I specifically apply this to my life?

Notice that these Bible study methods don’t actually tell you specifically how to discern the author’s original meaning. They seem to collapse interpretation and application.

What Does the Text Mean?

In Bible studies, the question is often asked, “What does this text mean?” I have often heard answers like this: “It means we should love share the gospel more” or “It means we should do a better job . . . .” What’s the problem with this? The problem is that John, Paul, Paul, Moses, nor any other author had you or me specifically in mind when writing the letter or book.

People confuse the meaning (意思, yìsì) of the text and the significance (意义, yìyì) of the passage. By “meaning,” I refer to what the author meant in his original setting. This is the primary goal of interpretation, yet I find few prioritize this skill specifically and without the errors I mentioned above. Rather, people stress significance, i.e. application (“what the text means for me”).

This is dangerous tendency because we will inevitably force our own context into the Bible. Yet our questions and assumptions are not necessarily those of the biblical writers. Whether we like it or not, we will wind up reading the Bible like “liberals,” who make the Bible mean whatever they personally want it to mean.

We justify this tendency simply by saying we simply want to be practical. However, right application should be rooted in right interpretation.

What are we to do? This will be the subject of upcoming posts, in which I will offer a bookmark that can be given to believers to use whenever they read the Bible.

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