Information from How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart
Many people say, “You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what it says.”
There is a lot of truth in that protest. In fact, the authors of How to Read the Bible for All its Worth are convinced that the single most serious problem people have with the Bible is not with a LACK of understanding, but with the fact that they understand most things too well!!!!
Mark Twain spoke for many when he said that the things in the Bible that bothered him were not those that he did not understand but those that he did understand.
The aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “out clever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deep truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), vested interests (the need to support a theological bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong.
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain” meaning of the text.
The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text.
The Reader as an Interpreter
The first reason one needs to learn HOW to interpret is that whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter.
That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that OUR understanding is the same as the Holy Spirit’s or the human author’s (Paul, John, Matthew, etc.) INTENT.
However, we invariably bring TO the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas.
The reader of an English Bible is already involved in interpretation. For translation in itself a (necessary) form of interpretation since the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek.
Your Bible, whatever translation you use, which is YOUR beginning point, is in fact the end result of much scholarly work. Translators are regularly called upon to make choices regarding meaning and THEIR choices are going to affect how you understand.
Also, a simple look at the contemporary church, for example, makes it abundantly clear that not all “plain meanings” are equally plain to all.
For example: It is of more than passing interest that most of those in today’s church who argue that women should keep silent in church on the basis of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 at the same time deny the validity of speaking in tongues and prophecy, the very context in which the “silence” passage occurs. For some, the Bible “plainly teaches” believers’ baptism by immersion; others believe they can make a biblical case for infant baptism. Both “eternal security and the possibility of “losing one’s salvation” are preached in the church, but never by the same person!
The antidote to BAD interpretation is not NO interpretation, but GOOD interpretation, based on common sense guidelines.
The Nature of Scripture
Historically the church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ—the Bible is at the same time both human and divine.
As Professor George Ladd once put it: “The Bible is the Word of God given in the words of people in history.” It is the dual nature of the Bible that demands of us the task of interpretation.
Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture. Because it is God’s Word, we must listen and obey.
But because God chose to speak His Word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity—each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (and in some cases also by the oral history it had before it was written down).
Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the “tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.
Also, the Bible is not a series of propositions and imperatives from “Chairman God”.
There are propositions of course but rather God chose to speak His eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history.
Precisely because God chose to speak in the context of real human history, we may take courage that these same words will speak again and again in our own “real” history, as they have throughout the history of the church.
The fact that the Bible has a human side is our encouragement; it is also our challenge and the reason that we need to interpret.
Keep in mind—God’s Word to us was first of all His Word to the original hearers. If they were going to hear it, it could only have come through events and in language THEY could have understood.
Our problem is that we are so far removed from them in time, and sometimes in thought—this is the major reason one needs to learn to interpret the Bible.
Thus the task of interpreting involves the student at two levels: First, one has to hear the Word they heard; he or she must try to understand what was said to them back then and there. Second, one must learn to hear that same Word in the here and now.
To communicate His Word to all human conditions, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, dramas, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.
The First Task: Exegesis
The first task of the interpreter is call exegesis. Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the scripture to discover the original, intended meaning.
It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible.
This authors insist that exegesis should be the first step in reading EVERY text, not just those texts with obvious problems. Learning to think exegetically is not the only task; it is simply the first task.
The real problem with selective exegesis is that one will often read one’s own, completely foreign, ideas into a text and thereby make God’s Word something other than what God really said.
Be careful—consult good sources. Many have used false exegesis with Mark 10:23 and the story of the rich young ruler. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.” It is often said that there was a gate in Jerusalem known as the “Needle’s Eye,” which camels could go through only by kneeling, and with great difficulty. The problem is there never was such a gate in Jerusalem at any time in its history.
Learning to do exegesis
At its highest level, of course, exegesis requires knowledge of: the biblical languages, the Jewish, Semitic, and Hellenistic backgrounds; how to determine the original text when the manuscripts have variant readings; the use of all kinds of primary sources and tools.
Of course few have that understanding so the key is to first learn what you can do with your own skills, and second you must learn to use the work of others.
First learn the Historical Context—the time and culture of the author and his readers, that is, the geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting; and the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, prophetic oracle, or other genre.
It simply makes a different in understanding to know the personal background of Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah or that Haggai prophesied AFTER the exile, or to know the messianic expectations of Israel when John the Baptist or Jesus appear on the scene, or to understand the differences between the cities of Corinth and Philippi and how these affect the churches in each.
To answer most of these questions, one will need some outside help like a good bible dictionary, a Bible encyclopedia, Bible handbook, or a commentary.
Essentially Literary context means—words only have meaning in sentences, and for the most part biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences.
The most important contextual question you will ever ask, and it must be asked over and over again of every sentence and ever paragraph is—”What the point?”
We must trace the author’s train of thought. What is the author saying and why does he or she say it right here? The goal of exegesis is to find out what the original author intended.
The Questions of Content
Content has to do with the meaning of words, the grammatical relationships in sentences and the choice of the original text where the manuscripts have variant readings. Look at a good commentary for this kind of search.
A good Bible dictionary, a good Bible handbook, a good translation, and good commentaries.
The Second Task: Hermeneutics
Although the word “hermeneutics” ordinarily covers the whole field of interpretation, including exegesis, it is also used in the narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts—to ask the questions about the Bible’s meaning in the “here and now.”
The reason one must not begin with the “here and now” is that the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text—this is the plain meaning one is after.
We cannot make the text mean anything that pleases us, and then give the Holy Spirit “credit” for it. The Holy Spirit seeks to help us in the discovery of the original intent, and in guiding us as we try to faithfully apply that meaning to our own situations.
A text cannot mean what it never meant. The true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken. This is the starting point.