Interpreting Scripture When You Only Have a Bible (Steps 1 and 2)

Interpreting Scripture When You Only Have a Bible (Steps 1 and 2) December 31, 2013

Practically speaking, how do we interpret the Bible when we only have the Bible? This means no commentaries, no seminary education, no footnotes, etc.

whenyouonlyhavebibleFor Part 1 of the series “When You Only Have a Bible,” click here. Check out Part 2 talked about unhelpful but common approaches to interpretation.

I have created a bookmark (in color or black-white) that lays out a process whereby anyone can interpret the Bible in a way that corrects problems I mentioned in the last post (concerning other interpretation methods).

The following model was originally designed in Chinese. As a result, the verbiage was designed so that people could easily memorize the steps. I have yet to figure out what memory devices could be used in English to teach the same content. Still working on it . . . .

The process is designed to makes us slow down! It has five steps that could be summarized in this way:

述-印-境-提-释 (shù-yìn-jìng-tí-shì)

Today, I’ll list the first two steps.

1. Restate the passage (重述, chóngshù)

In other words, use your own words to repeat and retell what the author say; however, do not interject your own interpretation. As much as possible, don’t add your own understanding to the passage. If the meaning of a phrase or word is unclear, then simply restate the language it uses.

I find people initially really resist this step at first. Eventually, they come to appreciate it because the purpose is to slow us down so that we notice the subtle transitions, the author’s imagery and word choice, as well as any other details we missed in our initial casual read.

When you actually have to rephrase a text (being careful not to interpret it), you notice more things. Even small children can parrot what they don’t yet understand. In the same, way anyone can do this step.

It’s not complicated. It simply requires the humility to be patience and slow yourself down.

2. What are your impressions of the text? (印象, yìnxiàng)

Specifically, we want to discover our own assumptions that we bring to the text. Perhaps, we have read a book or heard a pastor teach on the subject. We’ve “heard” someone say something that seems like a reasonable interpretation. This type of question is ignored by typical interpretation methods

Why is this question utterly critical? Although the original meaning of the text doesn’t change, our interpretation of a passage certainly might shift depending on our assumption, background, and culture. We must be humble enough to distinguish what the Bible says and what we think it says (i.e. theology). Our knowledge is limited. Sin and misunderstanding can subtly distort our reading of the text.

In a Chinese context, this question especially has value in that there are no wrong answers! We are not asking what they text means. We are asking: On the surface, what does it appear to say? The only possible “wrong” answer is if someone lies and says something that is not their impression.

I’ve heard people dismiss this concern because they say that Holy Spirit guides us so as to reveal truth. Frankly, this objection is naïve in this respect: we obviously know that Christians disagree, get things wrong, and misinterpret verses. Having the Spirit does not ensure omniscience. We need to be careful not to use the “Holy Spirit” card as a subtle way of validating our own interpretation against someone else’s.

If this is so, then we should take the problem more seriously than I think we have in the past. We do so by adding a step at the front of our study in order to make our assumptions as clear as possible. Perhaps, our impressions are correct; however, we still need to test them. It may be the case that we have assumed something that is true but it may be the minor point of the passage and not the major idea. It is quite easy to confuse right/wrong and major/minor. We must guard against compromising the gospel by settling for truth.

Essentially, my book Saving God’s Face aims at dealing with this very question, i.e. the influence of the reader on his or her own theology.

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