Interpreting the Bible

The bible is an interesting and wonderful book (or, more accurately, collection of books). It has stood the test of time and had a great influence on world history. Though we may know little about it, when we pick it up and read, we can be almost shocked in places by its confrontational, take-me-as-I-am kind of attitude. And even if we don’t wish to dig deeper than the plain surface meaning of the text, or look into the history of the way the bible came to us, it seems, nevertheless, to have about it an inherent authority – a kind of given-ness. Millions of people have found real power in the words contained in the bible. It can change lives and has done so throughout its history. It is indeed ‘sharper than any two edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12).

What I want to outline here, is a very rough guide for those who would go further than reading the surface text. For once we start to look beyond that given-ness I mentioned above, beyond the words on the page and the plain meaning of them, there can lie great depths of complexity. Laying aside the enormous providential complexities which led to the complete bible coming into existence (and staying in existence), consider the history it contains and the prophecy of future events it holds, many of them still to come. Consider the point where we are now, which is neither past nor future; the hinge-point where we engage with it at a given moment in time. Imagine the depth of the text; meanings which go below the surface, reaching as it were downwards. And then remember that in this depth of meaning, the whole thrust of scripture is directing us upwards, to the God from whence it came. When we consider all these angles (and there are more, too numerous to mention here) we begin to see the bible as being multi-dimensional, reaching back and forth and up and down. Cross shaped in fact.

But to understand more fully these dimensions of scripture, we have to move beyond the surface text and embark upon the science of biblical interpretation. And if we are to avoid coming up with erratic results and possibly false and dangerous teachings, there are some very basic ground-rules we need to observe.

The first of these is to recognise the genre, or type of writing we are looking at. For example, we need to know, if possible, whether we are reading poetry, history, prophecy, allegory, myth and so on. Sometimes it’s not absolutely clear and people will disagree about the genre of certain texts. But for the most part, it is not difficult to assess; history is usually clearly history (e.g., the books of Kings); poetry is usually clearly poetry (e.g., the book of Psalms); and so on.

Once we feel we understand what kind of writing we’re looking at, the next question to ask is; ‘what did this passage mean for the first hearers/readers?’ This area of research is called exegesis and will involve, first of all, setting the passage in its immediate context. This is vitally important as it is not wise to simply pluck odd verses or words from where they sit and base our understandings on them. It is in doing this that people can make the bible say whatever they wish it to say, even that ‘there is no God’ (Psalm 14:1); clearly a dangerous practice!

Once we’ve set the passage in context, maybe involving our reading a whole chapter (or even a whole book or more), we need to try and understand the historical and cultural context of the time. This may lead us off down various related avenues such as geography, archaeology and so on. Our examination may also involve our becoming aware of possible linguistic devices within the text such as figures of speech, metaphor, simile, hyperbole and so on. This in turn may mean referring to the original languages, either directly or through commentaries, depending on the level of our education.

When we finally feel happy that we have reached an understanding as to what the text originally intended to convey, we have to translate this into our own time, otherwise our research is purely academic and will not touch us existentially. So the next big question is ‘what does this passage mean for us now?’ In the field of interpretation, this area is known as hermeneutics. Of course, in many cases, the meaning for us today will be the same as it was for the first hearers/readers. But there will be times when dramatic historic and cultural differences between then and now may mean we have to interpret certain things differently, or maybe re-word certain concepts to make them meaningful for people of today.

Between exegesis and hermeneutics, there is an overarching principle of interpretation which is often overlooked. It is overlooked not only by many Christians, but especially by those who would comment on the things of our faith but who have little knowledge of Christianity or the science of biblical interpretation. This principle is still to do with context, but this time, the broader context; the context of the whole of the bible. To explain this principle, I often use an illustration of my own invention, taken from the world of electronics, which, as a young musician entering the recording world many years ago, I found it necessary to learn. And one of the fundamental lessons in electrics/electronics is the workings of parallel and serial connections. I’ve discussed this before in my review of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (an earlier entry on this blog) from which the following couple of paragraphs are adapted.

In a parallel connection in an electrical circuit, a current may flow from (say) a battery to four devices (say light bulbs) using four pairs of separate wires, each connected to the battery and to the positive and negative terminals of each light bulb. In a serial connection, the battery may similarly drive four bulbs, but these are ‘in line’. The electrical connections go from the battery to bulb one, then bulb two, and so on, then back to the battery, in a chain, as with most Christmas tree fairy lights. In the latter example, if one bulb fails, the chain is broken, the current stops, and all the bulbs go out. (In a parallel connection, only the affected bulb would go out).

The Christian interpretation of scripture is serial. That is, it proceeds in a line, and therefore, whatever we’re trying to establish as official doctrine must go through later revelation and the ultimate revelation of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the New Testament. We cannot simply ‘tap in’ making a ‘parallel’ connection to (for example) ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ (Exodus 21:24) and say; ‘this is how Christians should act towards people who wrong them.’ Every biblical connection we tap into has to follow the line, through the Lord Jesus Christ and subsequent revelation. Our Christian faith, although inextricably entwined with the Old Testament, is ultimately based on the New Testament. Most people have no conception of this simple rule, and therefore, make the most glaring errors in their attempts at biblical interpretation. And the biggest errors of all are made by people who come to the scriptures in a sceptical frame of mind (presenters of several recent TV documentaries spring to mind), or maybe even as total unbelievers. Christians believe that the bible is God’s word to us, breathed out by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), still crackling as it were with the static electricity of Spirit, ready to ‘short circuit’ or arc across to the anointed, receptive reader, who is fired by that same Spirit.

Now, to close, let me say that of course I realise that not everyone who reads the bible is going to go deeply into biblical interpretation. Many will simply read prayerfully for their own edification, and (hopefully) guided by the Holy Spirit, hear God speaking to them. But for those who do want to try to interpret and understand scripture in more depth, do remember these basic principles. Firstly, be sure you understand what kind of text you’re reading. Secondly, try and understand what the text said to the first hearers/readers. Thirdly, relate this to what the text is saying to us today, and fourthly and finally, a point we’ve not yet mentioned but which is vital – act on your conclusions. When you understand what ‘love your neighbour’ means, don’t just sit there thinking ‘now I understand.’ Do it!

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