I am a reader. The stacks of books in my bedroom, living room, and office, many of them still waiting to be cracked open, testify to this fact. I love to read, but I also know that not all reading is the same. Some is more work and some is more pleasure. A light work of fiction requires little of me but to engage my imagination and be carried away by the story. Online reading requires a bit (or a lot) of discernment to make sure the sources are reliable and the facts check out. Academic reading requires me to reason through the arguments being made and connect them to what I already know or have read in the field. Reading an ancient text requires that I suspend my 21st century perspective as best I can and learn a bit about the worldview and language of the time. Acknowledging a text's context, intent, and genre enables me to hear the words and ideas in such a way that my view of history and the world are enlarged.
Reading, interpreting, and understanding the Bible are important to those who profess faith in Jesus, but they have their challenges. When done poorly, with little thought to the context or genre, it is easy to twist the meaning of a text to suit our purpose. And this has been done by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people over the centuries. Take any high school literature class and you will know that it takes some effort to understand poetry, allegories, fables, and theatrical plays by the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare. Even the simplest work of fiction has multiple layers, and any historian will tell you that a historical document is never as straightforward as it seems. Likewise, the collection of books known as the Bible is not all that easy to read or understand. There are multiple genres (poetry, history, prophecy, wisdom, narratives), the collection covers a rather large swath of history and includes various accounts of the same time period, and some of the language is so obscure and/or filled with unfamiliar metaphors that the meaning is confusing. Nevertheless, there are many passages which are inspiring and beautiful in their simplicity, easily transcending the differences in time and culture to speak to us today.
If you are a student of the Bible, it is in your best interest to learn some basic principles of interpretation for this unique collection of books inspired by God. The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Below is a quote from Biblical scholar, Milton Terry. It is over a century old. I chose to include it because not only will it give you the chance to learn a bit about the topic, it will also give you the chance to practice adjusting your thinking to a slightly older way of writing. Here it is.
“Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. The word is usually applied to the explanation of written documents, and may therefore be more specifically defined as the science of interpreting an author's language. This science assumes that there are divers modes of thought and ambiguities of expression among men, and, accordingly, it aims to remove the supposable differences between a writer and his readers, so that the meaning of the one may be truly and accurately apprehended by the others.”
Thanks, Milton. I have hobbled together a few principles of Biblical interpretation and I share them with you here. Some I have gleaned from different sources, some I have learned in my studies, and some I have found in thoughtful readings of the text itself. The list is by no means complete, but should give you a good start in reading the ancient texts with a bit more understanding and a bit less confusion. Hopefully, it will also cut down on misinterpretations of the text (don't worry, we all do it at one point or another).
A few principles for interpreting the Bible:
1. The Hebrew Bible (OT) and the New Testament should not be separated. The mystery of Christ sheds light on the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament cannot be properly appreciated without knowing the history, style, and spirit of the Hebrew writers. The whole Bible is a divinely constructed unity, and in studying one part to the neglect of the other, we may fall into “one-sided and erroneous methods of exposition.” (Milton S. Terry)
2. The Bible is both a divine and a human text. This means that it speaks of divine mysteries through the lens of human experience. If we emphasize one aspect over the other, we miss the generous encounter in which it is grounded.
3. Take into account the author’s intention. We are over 2000 years removed from the biblical authors and in order to understand what they are saying, we must know a bit about their context, history, culture, literary forms, and audience. The scriptures were not written to us as contemporary readers, but they have implications for us. Commands and directives given to the nation of Israel are not necessarily commands to us, and promises made to biblical characters are not automatically transferable to us.
4. The context of a passage should always be considered. Context determines meaning, and isolating any phrase or story can lead to a misguided interpretation.
5. Identify the genre of the biblical passage. Is it historical narrative, laws, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parables, or correspondence? Each type of literature requires a slightly different hermeneutic method. Histories recount journeys we can relate to. Wisdom contains principles to live by. Parables make a certain point to the hearers. Poetry uses imagery and metaphor to paint pictures of ideas and express feelings.
6. Do not confuse interpretation with application. Jesus calls his followers to leave their jobs in order to follow him. This is part of a larger story in which Jesus gathers disciples. It is not a command for all people everywhere to forsake their family businesses. Just because Paul wrote that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6) does not mean that he is condoning slavery.
7. We all bring our own worldview and context to any interpretation, which is okay, but we must be mindful of imposing our own presuppositions or unrealistic expectations on the biblical text. Peter Enns says, “If we come to the Bible expecting something like a spiritual owner’s manual complete with handy index, a step-by-step field guide to the life of faith, an absolutely sure answer-book to unlock the mystery of God and the meaning of life, then conflict and stress follow right behind… what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith.” That being said, it is perfectly normal to have questions about what you read in the Bible, to be puzzled about certain things and bothered by others, and to change your mind on what it means as you delve deeper into these sacred texts. It is the joy of engaging with the divine mystery. (The Bible Tells Me So, pages 7-9)
8. God reveals himself to us through Jesus, the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our own efforts at understanding accomplish little without the life and breath of the Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you when you read and study the Bible. “The Bible … isn’t a problem to be fixed. It’s an invitation.” (Peter Enns)
Read Psalm 50. Is God’s announcement that He owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” an assurance that He can supply all our needs? (v. 10) Or does it mean something else in this context?
Read Psalm 118. Which day is the “day that the Lord has made” (v. 24) Does the text refer to every day or to a specific day?
Read Romans 10. What is the “word of God” (or, “word of Christ” in most translations) in verse 17? Does it refer to the Bible or to something else?