100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

#72: How should I read my Bible?

In technical, theological terminology, we could phrase this question as “What is good hermeneutics?” “Hermeneutics” are the principles by which we interpret Scripture. Even in asking this question we're making an assumption that reading the Bible is perhaps not the same as reading other books. This question is asked in regards to various kinds of genre; “How should we read poetry?” and “How should we read prose?” But the Bible falls into a genre all of its own. It's unlike any other book because it is the only book, according to the Christian faith, whose author is God. This immediately changes the way we approach the Text, since this author knows all things, and even knows us, the reader, intimately. Because the author is God, we have the expectation that everything written in the Bible is true and authoritative. Unlike a novel, or even a philosophical treatise, we are not free to disagree with the Text, lest we disagree with God. More and more in this day and age, the idea that we cannot have an alternative opinion to some written document offends us. However, believing that God is the author of Scripture is, I think, the most important hermeneutic principle of all. Unless we come to the Bible believing that God, by His providence, has breathed every word of it then, when we come to passages we don't understand, we won't bother to ask ourselves, (and ask the Lord), “What is it that God is saying to me here? How does this apply to me, and how does it fit into the rest of Scripture?”

The next most important hermeneutic principle is context. Every passage must be read in its context. Consider the passage which says “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1). People take this passage out of its context and believe that we should never so much as mention another person's sin to them. But if we look at the whole passage, it is telling us not to be hypocritical. If we are going to tell someone to repent of a certain sin, we ought not to be struggling, ourselves, with that sin...

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matthew 7:5)

“Taking the speck out of our brother's eye” is something we should be doing; but not when we're no better ourselves. And really, none of us are any better ourselves – helping each other with sin ought to be done in a “mutual-help” kind of way. But it ought to be done, since the Bible speaks clearly on the matter of Church discipline for sin, in a passage like Matthew 18:15-20. So while context is important to remember, the ultimate context for a passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture. Every interpretation of Scripture will be confirmed by some other passage of Scripture. If it contradicts other passages of Scripture, the interpretation is undoubtedly flawed.

Another principle we ought to bear in mind is that the books of the Bible were written first to a particular audience and not to people living in the technological age of the 2000-teens. Getting a feel for the historical setting and the culture of a Biblical audience is important. As we read the books of Moses, we ought to put ourselves in the shoes of an Israelite wandering through the desert, having just been dramatically freed from Egypt; or perhaps we were born there, depending on which book we're reading (since the books of Moses cover two generations.) We ought to read a book like Esther from the perspective of a post-exile community. We ought to read the New Testament having some feel for the kind of world that Christians lived in, with the paganism of Roman and Greek religion all around them. Perhaps a good example of how this is important is in the Book of Revelation. Many people read a passage like Revelation 13:17 and conclude that, at some point in the future, believers will be barred from commercial trade. But this was actually a problem for believers at the time the book was written. In that culture, worship of the pagan gods was part of what we might call “business networking”. If you didn't participate, your business was bound to suffer quite seriously. Of course, this is something that can happen at any point in history, where Christians might be discriminated against in business for their beliefs, or for not participating in “work-social” activities due to their compromising nature. But understanding the historical and cultural context helps us to see that this isn't so much of a specific prediction about some point in the future as it is a general principle about the Christian life.

Finally, we ought to be sensitive to the genre of a Biblical book or passage. We don't read historical narrative the same way that we read the poetry of the Psalms, for example. And the Bible contains a genre called “Apocalyptic Literature”, such as the Book of Revelation, in which symbolism is used extensively. We're not supposed, in that case, to take everything literally, but rather to carefully “decipher” the symbolism.

So reading the Bible does require some consideration as to our approach, it can require some study of history, and it most certainly requires the help of the Holy Spirit. As I said at the start, the most important hermeneutic is believing that the Bible is written by God, and to know who God is. That He is alive today and can help us to understand His Word is no small part of good hermeneutics.

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:13)

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