A Series: Christian Theology—Answers to Questions: Seven: Bible Interpretation
It would be utterly foolish of me to claim to explain “Bible interpretation” in a brief essay such as this. So many books have been written about it and even among conservative Protestant Christians there is so much disagreement about it. I simply laugh at anyone who claims to have the one and only, indisputable and final “key” to interpreting the entire Bible. And yet, I do not believe it is really reasonably possible to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. That is, although there is “pervasive interpretative pluralism” with regard to the Bible, that does not mean there are not some approaches that are better than others. Not all methods of Bible interpretation are reasonable. The most reasonable ones are those with the fewest problems—from inside a Christian life and world perspective that considers the Bible a book somehow inspired by God. (See my preceding essay here, number six, about what the Bible is.)
It would also be impossible to survey all the approaches to interpreting the Bible in such a brief essay, so I will focus on only a few and point out their strengths and weaknesses.
A standard, common, widely accepted approach in modern conservative Protestantism is summed up in the cliché “as literally as possible and as figuratively as necessary.” Short and sweet. But, of course, people have wildly differing concepts about what can be interpreted literally and what cannot be interpreted literally. So, as a rule of thumb, the cliché is not entirely wrong, but it is not especially helpful.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Martin Luther and some other Protestant reformers claimed that the Bible is “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting.” This was his/their response to the Catholic Church’s claim that the Bible could only be interpreted by the magisterium of the church. Today, neither claim seems reasonable. I tell my theology students that the Bible is not as clear as we wish it were. Some things are clearer than others, but there is no “common sense” reading of the Bible.
On the other hand, I do not believe the Bible is an esoteric book that requires some kind of special, spiritual training by some gnostic “master” or some special, spiritual experience to understand it. There are rules of interpretation that are basically the same as for all literature.
First, interpret every text in light of its context and that includes the culture of the time and place in which it was written. Never “cherry pick” a verse or passage out of context and make it into a cliché. There are numerous excellent books that will help with this. They are called “commentaries.” Some are better than others, but if you want to understand the Bible as opposed to merely reading it to support what you already think, Bible study using a good commentary is helpful. I will only mention one author here: Craig Keener who has written several books that explain the historical-cultural context of biblical books.
Second, interpret every text in light of the whole Bible (canonical interpretation), but I will add also “in light of the fuller revelation found in the New Testament” and especially using Jesus Christ, God incarnate, revelation in person, as the key to interpreting the whole Bible.
Third, strictly avoid using scripture to support presupposed biases or find justification for what you want to be and do and believe. Is that even possible? Postmodern interpretation is saying no. But that makes the Bible a “wax nose” that any knave can twist to fit his own countenance (Luther).
Fourth, read every passage in light of its literary genre. Don’t interpret a Psalm the same way you would interpret a Pauline epistle. Realize that the gospels are not biographies of Jesus; they are unique re-tellings of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant to provoke faith. Learn about apocalyptic literature and don’t read it (e.g., portions of Daniel and Revelation) as straight-forward accounts of literal events. Know the difference between a parable and an allegory.
The Bible is inspired and inspiring, but it is also ancient literature. One does not have to be a scholar to interpret it, but one does need help to interpret it correctly.A friend just sent me a picture of a t-shirt that bears the slogan “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context.”
Unfortunately, we (in America) live in a society where even most religious people think the Bible can be interpreted by every individual in any way he or she wishes and that there are no rules for interpreting the Bible. There is a great deal of resentment even among church people aimed at those who dare to say that training in Bible interpretation is not only useful but necessary. True, there are different levels of such training. Such training is what Sunday School used to be. Yes, of course, not everything said in Sunday School (or Bible study) was or is correct. But pastors used to go to seminary to learn how to interpret the Bible reasonably and then train lay leaders and teachers in their congregations how best to interpret the Bible. Now, unfortunately, many congregations simply do not care.
Let me end this admittedly inadequate (because too brief) exposition of how to interpret the Bible.
A few years ago I visited a large youth-oriented, conservative evangelical church. The pastor preached on the Old Testament judge Deborah. During his sermon he averred that Deborah was only a judge of Israel because the man God called to be judge declined. And he said that the Bible says Deborah judged Israel “sweetly.” Then he asked the congregation’s men “Wouldn’t you like to have a wife who “judges sweetly?” He spent a good deal of his sermon putting down women leaders by arguing that, according to the Old Testament story, Deborah was not supposed to be in such a leadership position and that the main message of the story is that men should heed God’s call to leadership for otherwise God will have to raise up a woman to lead.
I immediately went home and read the story of Deborah in the Bible (Judges 4). The pastor’s sermon included much “eisegesis” as opposed to “exegesis”—reading his own thoughts and beliefs into the Bible even by distorting what the Bible actually says. Interestingly, not long before visiting that church and hearing that sermon I read a book of sermons by a nationally-known mega-church pastor about Old Testament heroes of the faith. It included the mistaken points about Deborah found in the pastor’s sermon that I heard. (As an aside, the pastor whose sermon I heard also declared that he would not pronounce the name of the general Deborah ordered to go to war because it was the same as “a politician we don’t like.” Let the reader understand.)
This was not just an isolated incident. I have visited many churches and heard many sermons that included nonsense about the Bible. The sermons seemed more designed to “tickle the ears” of the congregation than to tell the truth about what the Bible really says.
Far too many congregations, even evangelical ones, are now no longer valuing biblical-theological education—even for their pastors. A great deal of nonsense is being spouted from pulpits because of that.
For those of you “church shopping” (as I am while approaching retirement and planning to move to a new city after that), please look at the pastor’s educational credentials. Did he or she graduate from a reputable seminary that is known for being biblically committed and for producing scholar-pastors who can and do communicate the Bible’s message faithfully and in a relevant and understandable way to congregants?
Here I will offer a partial list of such American seminaries: Asbury, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Bethel, Truett, Denver, North Park, Talbott, Covenant, Trinity, Sioux Falls, Northern Seminary (Chicago), Palmer, Hood. These have my “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Others receive it as well, but these are good for comparison purposes. (Responses about this list or specific seminaries on it or not on it will not be posted.)
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).