Biblical Interpretation

So you understand the context of this post, know that I am a formally trained pastor, meaning I was taught in seminary how to fulfill the function of vocational ministry. My Bible college and seminary experiences were great and I learned a ton of valuable information. I learned so much that I had no idea about. I learned about theology and doctrine and Church history. I was also taught how to interpret the Bible correctly. And it is here that I want to spend a couple minutes of your time.

I took a required class called Biblical Interpretation. This class gave us the tools we needed to properly work our way through a passage. I would say for anyone attempting to pursue vocational ministry, this is a great type of class to attend. We should be able, as Paul charged Timothy, to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

We were given a four-step process for interpretation of Scripture. This is not a uniquely Christian way to understand things. It is essentially the process by which the western mind deduces what is known as “Authorial Intent.” In other words, how do we get to what the author really means?

The process goes like this:

  • First, read the passage. Spend time reading the passage over and over. Get the feel for the passage.
  • Second, pull out the general principles that are at work in the passage. What are the timeless, transferrable truths that are being communicated?
  • Third, do any necessary word study work. What does the original language bring to the truths we have deduced?
  • Fourth, add historical context to the study. What does communicating this timeless truth help us learn about how they applied this truth in their lives?

There is nothing wrong with any of these steps. In fact, I think they are all important and necessary for proper interpretation. What I think has no bearing on authorial intent no matter how smart I think I am. However, there is a critical issue here I would invite each of us to consider as we work toward understanding what the Bible is actually saying.

If you look at this process, you will notice that my ideas and thoughts about the passage enter the process very early. Before I ever do any word study or historical work, I have decided what the passage is trying to say. The net impact of this is that whatever work I do after that has to fit what I have already decided is being communicated. In my opinion, this is very dangerous. This process allows for my thoughts and ideas to hold way too much sway over the proper understanding of a passage.

I would offer another way to engage interpretation of the Bible that might minimize my influence on a passage’s meaning. Here is the process:

  • First, learn everything you can about the historical context. Where and who is this being written to? What are the conversations already happening in that context? What is the political world like? What is the religious context? What are the idioms of that area? What can we learn about how they communicated value? What was their worldview? What type of people are we writing to? How did they raise their children? What was the moral code of that area? These are a few questions to get you started.
  • Second, read the passage. Read the passage over and over. Get comfortable with the passage.
  • Third, do all your word study work. Look at what words are being used. Where else do they show up and where are they not used when the same idea is being communicated?
  • Fourth, decide what timeless, transferrable truth is being communicated.

When we save our conclusion until the end, we let the Text say what it says before we consider the implications of holding such a notion. This allows the Bible to dictate doctrine rather than trying to get the Bible to fit into our existing doctrine. We discover God is far bigger and broader and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined.

I know for some this feels a bit daunting to think about trying, but that is only because we haven’t ever considered how important historical context is to understanding a passage. Give it a whirl. As I learn and grow, I am amazed at how letting the Text say what it says without my bias or prejudice changes so much about how I see God and people. I am learning to see the value in loving people more and how deeply God cares about the brokenness of this world and how passionately He pursues all of us — and how He invites each of us to partner with Him to restore what is broken.

May you always be challenged by the truths of Scripture. May you give your heart and soul to understand it well so you can walk out the words of life. May you discover how wide and how deep and how amazing is the love of Christ. And may you always stay in step with our amazing Savior.