Principles for Approaching the Bible

Principles for Approaching the Bible March 25, 2019

The Jesus Creed blog shared a number of principles for biblical interpretation from John Walton, the deservedly renowned evangelical biblical scholar. While a number of principles are shared related to a number of different aspects of how religious believers approach the Bible, it is the methodological commitments that I think are particularly worthy of being given wide circulation. Here they are:

Methodological Commitments.

  1. We must allow the text to pursue its own agenda, not force it to pursue ours.
  2. We must be committed to the intention of the author rather than getting whatever mileage we can out of the words he used.
  3. We must resist over interpreting the text in order to derive the angle we are seeking.
  4. We must be willing to have our minds changed by the text – that is at least part of the definition of submitting ourselves to the authority of the text.
  5. We must be willing to accept the inevitable disappointment if the text does not address or solve the questions we would like answers to.

These are all important guidelines to keep in mind. We shouldn’t hijack the text, commandeering it for our own purposes.

Check out the blog post on Jesus Creed for the rest of what is offered there. It is worth reflecting on these “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts.” These aren’t conclusions that can be tested scientifically in a test tube or lab experiment. They are value commitments. Not only biblical interpretation as practiced by the mainstream academy, in most seminaries as well as secular colleges and universities, but the entire educational endeavor in most institutions of higher education, does not unfold in an abstract manner that simply is. It is carried out in a way that reflects our values, our conviction that there is merit to subjecting even our most sacred texts and dogmas, our most cherished assumptions and ideas, to close scrutiny and cross-examination.

This statement by Allan Bevere also seems like a good principle for religious believers to follow:

On the one hand, the tensions cannot and should not be smoothed over to protect Scripture; and on the other hand, Scriptures we don’t like cannot simply be dismissed in order to protect God’s character. We should not seek for easy answers, and we must take the entire canon of Scripture into account.

A United Methodist minister urged caution when using the Bible. See also Hillel Halkin’s interesting argument that it is impossible to read the Bible “as literature.” And Marti Steussy from here in Indianapolis was interviewed for an article in the Indianapolis Recorder. Here is an excerpt:

There are also literary benefits to learning how to read the Bible in its original language. Marti Steussy, who is retired but still teaches a few Greek and Hebrew courses at Christian Theological Seminary, said many of the Bible’s authors have distinct voices that tend to get lost when translated into English. Take Jesus, for example.

“His ability to play a soundbite is amazing,” Steussy said of his Sermon on the Mount. “We sort of miss that.”

Steussy said one misconception people have is that learning how to apply the original language to the Bible will answer all the questions they’ve ever had. But Steussy noted Greek and Hebrew, just like English, have words and sentence structures that a reader can interpret in a number of ways.

Steve Wiggins wrote about the things we instinctively know when reading a newspaper that we are prone to forget when reading the Bible, and the importance of context. See as well Keith Giles’ post with the title “I Never Go To The Bible For Wisdom: Because The Bible Tells Me Not To,” Richard Beck on progressives who are triggered by the Bible, the book review of Inconsistency in the Torah, the editorial about How the Bible is Written, and the continuing series by Internet Monk on Pete Enns’ book.

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  • John MacDonald

    For me, good hermeneutics is like Alice chasing the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole: Ex nihilo, we are suddenly alerted to something as “questionable,” like Alice’s surprising encounter with the white rabbit. Intrigued, we follow the white rabbit to see what is going on, then discover ourselves down the rabbit hole, and we find ourselves in a terrible/wonderful Wonderland. Initially, we didn’t know or suspect what the whole of wonderland was, or even that it existed. The key is to start with an intriguing piece of evidence and let it lead you to the hermeneutic whole/world . When I taught first year Philosophy seminars back in 2002, too often I would find the students starting out their hermeneutic journey by already thinking they knew what the whole/world was, or concluding they had discovered it too quickly (before the evidence/rabbit had actually led them to the actual whole).


    • John MacDonald

      One Last Thought On Text Interpretation (Hermeneutics)

      (1) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

      So, one half of the Hermeneutics Equation (Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll was a Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, after all) is that evidence speaks to us, like the white rabbit to Alice, and we are compelled by our curiosity to pursue it until, perhaps, we find ourselves in a terrible/wonderful Wonderland (the world/whole) = The World was what the initial encounter with the nervous, white rabbit was pointing to, like a sign (hence, Semiotics – theory of signs). The part can lead us to the whole, like the bread crumbs can lead us to Hanzel and Grettel.

      (2) Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll

      On the other hand, the reverse happens: The “whole/world lights up the parts,” like the way our background knowledge/world imparts Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky with meaning. Consider how much your mind must be making meaning to understand this following bit of linguistic gibberish by Lewis Carroll:



      ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
      All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

      “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
      Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

      He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
      So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

      And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
      Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

      One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
      He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

      “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
      O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

      ’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
      All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

      Nota Bene: So, good Hermeneutic/Interpretive Practice happens when we (1) Suspend our presuppositions to follow the evidence/rabbit to the whole/world, and paradoxically, (2) We let the world (like a picture on the cover of a puzzle box) light up the puzzle piece. The Hermeneutic Circle means (i) the part leads us to the whole, while (ii) the whole also illuminates the part. Interpretation as a whole is like staring at one of those Gestalt Hidden Pictures, until you see the hidden image, and afterward you “can’t not see it.”

      Can you find the hidden image in this Gestalt picture which seems to just be the face of an Old Man? I actually have trouble seeing the Old Man because the hidden picture is speaking to me so vocally:

      • John MacDonald


        I showed the above Gestalt Old Man Hidden Picture to my friend, and she is having trouble seeing the hidden picture. If anyone out there is having trouble seeing the hidden picture, the key is to understand this picture is like a text, such as Moby Dick. Moby Dick is only about a guy chasing a whale on the surface. Moby Dick must be interpreted to dis-close (A-letheia) the hidden meaning of the text. So, just as we would employ sound interpretive strategies to disclose the “real truth” behind the whaling story of Mobly Dick, try investigating the above Gestalt image of the old man using sound interpretive strategies to uncover the hidden image/meaning of the Old Man picture. If you just stare at it with no interpretive approach, it will really just be only luck if you see the hidden image.

        • John MacDonald

          So, yes, on the surface we see an old man, but what hidden image is this picture hiding?

  • Ian Robinson


    1. We must examine the authors’ intent, bias and wider context, but we also look at what they were
    representing, the gospel of Jesus Christ. No interpretation can be legitimate if it is not referencing Missio Dei.

    2. If Agape is not most highly valued in method and outcome, the interpretation offered cannot be correct.

    3. Our minds are another internal culture-born and life-shaped context wherein our intellectual tools exercise bias in registering
    what is of value and what is left invisible. Gender, trauma, favoured friends, ambitions, disappointments and personality all impinge on how we read.

    4. God is not absent or distant from this process.He is the primary agent in the incarnating of the Word through a dialogical set
    of processes – in the formation of the canon of Scripture, in the historic church’s ongoing priority given to the raw records of Scripture, and in the work of the Holy
    Spirit in the church and in the believer. Deist-type interpretations must be brought more fully into that dialogue. Inerrancy-type interpretations also.

    • John MacDonald

      I like your point 4, which I neglected to mention in my comment above: God is not absent or distant from the process. In German they say: Es gibt = it gives. The theos is required, although each of us according to our own understanding of God.

      In the Gestalt old man picture puzzle I posted above, I said one good way to find the hidden image behind the old man image is to employ effective interpretive strategies. So, when we read, one of the things we are basically trying to do is gather clues to determine what the big picture of the text is. In the case of the old man picture, we can ask what the author of the picture intended? We can do this (1) Aesthetically, and (2) Thematically. Regarding 2, we can ask what an old man might “mean,” supposing the author intended a meaning. In our particular case of the old man picture, such an approach may not be helpful. Even if we, by accident (or by looking it up on the internet), guess what the face of the old man is pointing to, this doesn’t tell us how to see the hidden image. I have led seminars where many participants were unable to see the hidden image behind the old man picture even after I told them what the hidden picture was! On the other hand, regarding 1, Aesthetics, we can ask if there is a clue in the visual presentation of the old man which points to something beyond the picture just being an old man. Perhaps the artist left us, not a semantic clue, but a real visual clue! Examine the various visual elements that make up the old man’s face -you may find a clue/Easter egg in doing so! In reading, either texts or pictures, we basically use whatever we have available to us to make/uncover meaning.

      Back to your point, the theos is required, descriptively anyway, as that which releases what we experience as a flash of insight (seeing the hidden picture that the old man is hiding for the first time). We have all stayed up all night trying fruitlessly to gain insight, when all of the sudden it comes in a flash. Brute force/effort produced nothing. As Heidegger said, thinking is waiting, and fleshing out what was given in the flash of insight is thanking. Every step along the interpretive path depends on the daimon preventing us from inadvertently taking a wrong turn – as Socrates said.

      • John MacDonald

        Okay, times up – lol. What’s the hidden image?

        I’ve had a few people message me as to what the hidden picture is, so here is my teaching strategy for uncovering it. When I taught this picture as an allegory for interpretive theory to elementary and college level students, I started with the interpretive clue the artist left. I would ask: Riddle me this, Batman: “When does hair not look like hair? If it doesn’t look like hair, what does it look like?

        So, if you look at the old man picture, if you start to see past the old man, you can see something curious: His hair looks like a leafy arbor. Then I would ask, “If the hair is an arbor, what is the arbor framing?” We would keep on going with interpretive clues until the students learned what the hidden image was: A Couple Kissing! I call this picture “Beautiful/Painful Reminiscence,” because, for me, it is about an old man remembering youth in both a loving, and longing way. This is a great way to illustrate hermeneutics for visual learners (which we all mostly are anyway) because it illustrates finding a clue (the oddity of the leaves in the old man’s hair) and letting it lead you to the “whole/world” of the young couple in love – like the nervous white rabbit led Alice to the terrible/wonderful world: wonderland!

        What’s cool about the picture is that even after you have led the learner to the hidden image, some still have a great deal of difficulty seeing it – like YEC people not being convinced by common sense science. Sometimes it is not simply that people are being obstinate, just that they can’t see it yet, so it is an opportunity for further teaching!

        • Gary

          I don’t know, John. “Letting it lead you to the whole/world” of the detail of the couple kissing? Instead of “hermeneutics”, it seems to lead to the big picture, not the minute details. Evolution and survival of the fittest.
          Seems like we have evolved to see the entire whole picture (situational awareness), especially when it represents a threat (old grumpy man). And ignoring the small detail of a non- threatening couple kissing, lost in the minutia. I have to admit I didn’t see the couple till you gave the hints.

          • John MacDonald

            Gary said: I have to admit I didn’t see the couple till you gave the hints.

            Hi Gary. One of my interests is in getting the education system (K – College Level) more interested in Philosophy. If the old man Gestalt image might help a 3rd grader metacognitively think about what it means to interpret, then perhaps it’s a little helpful …

            A saying is attributed to Einstein, which may or may not be authentic, that nonetheless makes the important point that if you can’t explain your idea to a child, you don’t understand it yourself. My good friend who recently passed, the eminent Canadian Catholic Post Modern Philosopher Dr. David Goicoechea, used to say the best way to learn is to teach. Regarding Philosophy, I am a big advocate of the Picture Book Philosophy approach, where college level students go into an elementary school classroom and lead Picture Book Philosophy Classes with the children. On of my favorite books to do Picture Book Philosophy with is “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Picture Book Philosophy is great for the college students, and the school children. And the cool thing is that the curriculum has already been written! And, of course, there are resources for older children as well. Check out this introduction to Picture Book Philosophy – developed by professional Philosophers:

          • John MacDonald

            Here is another great piece to do as an activity with students to demonstrate how much the mind is involved in making meaning, and that meaning isn’t just found out there:

            “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

          • Gary

            That already know this concept by texting on their iPhones.

          • Gary

            I can’t even text right.

          • John MacDonald

            That’s okay. I wasn’t confused by what you wrote. My mind inferred you meant “They” from the available syntax and semantics lol (Philology joke).

  • Dan Kline

    Literary scholars have for decades spurned the idea of “intention” as it is unrecoverable and allows the interpreter to fill-in “the author’s intent” with all kinds of nonsense. There is only the text and what we can recover of the context. “Intent” is not a methodological commitment; it is a dodge.