I usually just don’t say anything when I hear Biblical interpretation leave the road and head for the ditches. But doggone it, there’s some fairly basic stuff here that could be very helpful to those of you who genuinely love the Bible.
So in no particular order.
1) Get a decent book on Biblical interpretation and read it. I don’t mean a Bible handbook or introduction. I mean a book on Biblical interpretation. So, even though you don’t need more books, I command you to purchase the following two volumes. (Used & Cheap. Fear not.)
Julian, Crabtree and Crabtree, The Language of God. If you can only get one. Get this one. Read it out loud to yourself several times.
Those of you who claim to “just read the Bible” are not. You’re interpreting the Bible. Actually, you’re bringing your interpretation to the Bible and either you don’t know it or you think that your interpretation and God’s word are the same thing, in which case you need to go join one of several blogs I could recommend.
In all seriousness, evangelicals have a remarkable problem when it comes to treating the scriptures with respect. It’s astounding how many Christians tend to act as if any thought that comes into their head pertaining to the Bible is de facto true because they believe the Spirit is guiding them. If your use of the Bible were like handling a gun, you might have shot several people by now. Put that thing down and learn some basics on using the weapon.
if you can’t afford the books, then try this free Biblical Theology course from the Worldwide Classroom at Covenant Seminary.
2) Now, let’s take the issue of what to do with an event in a historical narrative. I could pick any of hundreds, but let’s use one I have been involved with recently: Ezra’s verse by verse expounding of the Law in Nehemiah 8.
A Bible teacher I know has been expounding Nehemiah 8:1-8. In this passage, Nehemiah goes through the book of the law and other priests explain it and give the sense of it to the people. My friend sees in this an authoritative methodology for preaching. All preaching must be verse by verse through Biblical books. Many Bible teachers sees this as a Biblically authoritative matter and a crucial issue in the demise of churches.
I preach and teach through books from time to time, and do not disagree that this is of value, but I do not see it as the only Biblically authoritative model for preaching. (This has been claimed in Southern Baptist circles for years, and the results are hardly impressive. “Verse by verse” preachers int the SBC characteristically ignore context, overall message and Christ-centered interpretation to simply “ride” whatever aspect of the passage is most appealing to them. Instead of getting a walk-through of a passage, one hears a passage “used,” in a blatantly cavalier manner.)
Nehemiah 8: 1-18 is the one of a very few examples of verse by verse teaching in the Biblical record. It’s a good example, but Ezra’s reading and explanation of the law was an event in Hebrew history, not a command for all believers. We have no reason to believe this continued in Jewish life. (Synagogue worship followed a kind of lectionary, with comments on the text of the week.)
If Ezra did verse by verse exposition, does that mean we are all under a scriptural command to do the same? I don’t believe so. Jesus didn’t do it. He told parables and taught topcially. Paul didn’t do it. He preached the Gospel using lots of citations from various places in various books, often cited rather creatively. The apostles didn’t do it. Read the sermons in Acts. The author of Hebrews- the longest sermon in the New Testament- doesn’t do it. That book cites passage from all over the Old Testament in a very eclectic manner.
Ezra’s methodology is never cited in a corrective passage, like I Corinthians or Revelation 2-3, as being the key to church health. This particular methodology is never mentioned in the pastoral letters as the assignment of a preaching elder like Timothy. There is good reason to believe that verse by verse exposition of Old Testament books was a rarity in the Gentile churches until bishops like Augustine and Origien began preaching the Old Testament Christologically using a verse by verse method heavy on allegorization.
Ezra’s method is also characteristic of teaching (didache) rather than of proclamation (kerygma), which always centers on God’s exaltation of Jesus as messiah and Lord. Ezra’s situation demanded that he conduct a “Bible school” for the returned community.
Traversing the long landscapes of Biblical books a verse at a time cannot be done at the expense of a clearly Christ-centered message, and this means we must come to the Biblical books with our Gospel-shaped theology as a presupposition. Gospel ministers know what is the message of the Bible, and they are called to put that message- Christ and the Gospel- front and center in every examination of any Biblical book.
So I’d conclude there are many different models for preaching and teaching in the Bible, and we’re free under the leadership of the Spirit to use as many as are appropriate in any congregation to accomplish the maturing of believers in Christ. For example, formal worship may use a shorter, application-oriented homily from the Gospels, while a mid-week Bible class may go through books in a more “verse by verse” fashion. An evangelistic presentation may deal with only a small portion of scripture, while a discipleship class may use a selection of scripture.
Remember, the fact that something happened in the Bible doesn’t mean you can use that event as authoritative and mandatory for all believers and all situations.
3. The mark of a real interpreter is a respect for the fact of Biblical interpretation in every Christian tradition and community, and real humility for where he/she stands in the process.
There are people who know far more than you do. There are scholars who have dedicated their lives to understanding the Bible in ways you and I can barely even understand. There is a deep influence of culture and language at work in interpretation. We all bring baggage, sin, wrong assumptions, arrogance, ignorance and well-intentioned errors to the process of interpretation.
If a room full of various kinds of Christians are each asked to interpret the “rock” passage in Matthew 16 or the key passages on Baptism or the accounts of the Lord’s Supper, there are going to be deeply divergent methods, assumptions and conclusions.
Now some of those “interpreters” will simply proceed under the assumption that whatever they’ve done has arrived at the true interpretation and everyone else is making grievous errors. And maybe they are right. But perhaps they are wrong. Or, far more likely, is the prospect that the Biblical texts simply don’t give us enough information to always authoritatively answer the questions. Perhaps legitimate competing presuppositions turn the whole matter around. And, yes, we often have to consult our tradition to know exactly what we believe. Yes….shocking news!….most of us BRING some of our conclusions with us, and no amount of interpretation will change our mind.
(The other day a Catholic friend announced that everything he believes is plainly taught in scripture. Folks, I would say that if there aren’t things you believe that AREN’T plainly taught in scripture, but ONLY taught in tradition, you probably aren’t being an honest Catholic. And the very same things can be said of any of our traditions. We Baptists are quite sure the Bible supports that American flag in the sanctuary and deacons running the church, right?)
Imagine for a moment that a person is convinced that a true work of the Holy Spirit only occurs in a spontaneous, unstructured environment. Will they see the liturgical aspects of the Psalms? Will they see the ordered worship of the Old Testament? Or suppose someone comes to the text with a particular view of church government. Will they see the texts that do not support their view? Will they have an interpretation that fairly hears those passages?
As I said, the mark of a real interpreter is an appreciation for the fact, process and limitations of all of our efforts to understand the Bible. We might take note that our over-confidence regarding what the Bible says has embarrassed us over and over in Christian history. Will we ever learn the lesson that a true interpreter knows his/her interpretation is a human work, and a fragile one at best?
In the end, will they treat other interpreters as loving God, the Bible and the church as much as they do, or will they suggest that anyone who REALLY reads the Bible will come to their conclusion?
Someone, somewhere- and I can tell you where- will look at this last point and tell you its all about the postmodern rejection of certainty. You can be sure they will be 120% sure of that, and always will be.