How To Read The Bible Well: An Introduction To Biblical Hermeneutics
Want to learn how to read the Bible well?
Once I heard a story of a Christians method for deciding who and who not to date. An unbeliever asked her out, and she was stuck. She opened her Bible and read an obscure passage in the Old Testament that she believed gave her the green light to say yes. As you can imagine, disaster ensued and the relationship ended in heartache.
This is an example of, among other things, reading the Bible out of context. Weve all done it and, to varying degrees, may even continue to do it. But poor Bible reading skills should be fought against. If we quote Gods Word out of context and distort the original meaning, were no longer quoting Gods Word.
Like many things, reading the Bible well takes time, help, and experience.
If you want to learn how to read the Bible well, you have to understand something called hermeneutics. Dont let the word scare you. It simply means the theory of interpretation. It is the act of seeking to properly interpret Scripture, which I believe involves at least five things: personal prayer, literary analysis, literary context, historical context, and Christ-centered reflection. 1
Lets take a look at each step.
Christ The Heart Of The Bible
The third requirement in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. If we agree with the 1976 Moscow Conference that the Scriptures constitute a coherent whole, where are we to locate their wholeness and coherence? In the person of Christ. He is the unifying thread, that runs through the entirety of the Bible from the first sentence to the last. Jesus meets us on every page. It all ties up because of Him. In Him all things hold together .
Much study of Scripture by modern western scholars has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into what are seen as its original sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of isolated units. Recently, there has been a reaction against this, with biblical critics in the west devoting much greater attention to the way in which these primary units have come to be joined together. This is something that we Orthodox may certainly welcome. We must see the unity of Scripture as well as the diversity, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers for the most part a synthetic rather than an analytical style of hermeneutics, seeing the Bible as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.
How Then Should We Interpret Genesis
Christians today are strongly divided on how to read the early chapters of Genesis. For that reason, perhaps here more than almost anywhere else in the Bible, we need to become aware of our tendencies to interpret with twenty-first century ideas and questions in mind.
Scholars in the BioLogos community interpret the early chapters in Genesis in a variety of ways, and there are many articles on our website revealing this diversity of thought. Yet all share a commitment to the authority and inspiration of Genesis and a method of interpreting Genesis that tries to recover what the original audience would have understood.
BioLogos understands the early chapters of Genesis as describing real events through largely figurative language, consistent with the way other ancient Near Eastern literature described events. By faith we believe Genesis is true, though its purpose is to reveal God and his plan for humanity, not to communicate bare facts about science or history as we think of them today.
What Was The Cultural Background Of The Original Audience
To take the Bible seriously, we also need to consider whom the author was writing to: the Bible was written for us, but not to us. Cultural norms, symbolism, and the audiences familiarity with Scripture may all contribute to the way in which Scripture has been written and understood. For example, the long lifespans of the patriarchs in the Old Testament likely had greater symbolic significance to the ancient Hebrews than we currently understand. The ages are all multiples of five with seven or fourteen added occasionally, suggesting a rhetorical meaning.
An example of cultural significance in the New Testament is found in the story of the prodigal son as described in Luke 15. A straightforward reading of the parabledisregarding the contextteaches us about the love and forgiveness of a father toward his son, and consequently about Gods love toward his children. However, when the story is considered in its cultural framework, the reading is much more profound.
According to New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, the Jewish son not only acted disgracefully by asking for his inheritance, but he further debased himself by squandering it. The sons behavior warranted a Kezazah, or cutting off ceremony, upon his return.1 This ceremony would have included rejection by the village and an angry confrontation by his father. Furthermore the son would have had to beg for permission to train for a job in the next village.
Sermon on the Mount , chromolithograph, published 1886.
Want To Begin Reading The Bible Habitually
OK, so now that you understand some of the basic principles for interpreting the Bible as a Catholic, its time for you to blow the dust off the Bible on your bookshelf and begin reading.
But where should you begin? What is the best way to start reading the Bible habitually so that you can regularly encounter God in His Word?
For more on this topic, I encourage you to check out this other post of mine, titled Read the Bible Daily.
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Dont Put Yourself At The Center
Remember, the Scriptures testify to Jesus, not you! Yes, there are thousands of things that are incredibly relevant to you, but Jesus is at the start, middle, and end of the Bible.
ITS. ALL. ABOUT. JESUS.
Its easy to put yourself smack dab in the middle of stories that are really pointing to Jesus. Youre not David in the story of David and Goliath, youre freaked out Israel.
Jesus is David, the conquering king. The story of Adam and Eve isnt mainly a primer on the ways of Satan, its the tragic story of the Fall and Gods promise of a snake-crusher.
As youre learning how to study the Bible, keep Jesus at the center.
The Origin Of The Bible
The 66 books of the Protestant Bible contain diverse types of literature and were written in three different languages by dozens of authors from diverse cultural backgrounds and walks of life over many centuries. The Old Testament writings were penned and compiled over a period of about 1,000 years the New Testament writings span perhaps 100 years. Hundreds of years passed between the writing of the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament.
While many writings were understood to be authoritative by Christians in the first century A.D., it took hundreds of years for the early church to sort through the diverse body of writing related to the Christian movement and finalize the canon of authoritative writings that comprise the Bible today . The many versions and translations of the Bible available today reflect centuries of scholarship and collaboration among Christians of various traditions.
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The Purpose Of Scripture
Scripture is not intended as a moral guide book or a collection of propositions to believe. Its purpose is to reveal Gods plan and purposes throughout human history. According to the Apostle Paul, All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work . Among the most important objectives, Scripture is able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus .
Embrace The Word Of God
The whole point of reading and understanding the Bible is to encounter God, understand the revelation he has given us, and grow in faith.
So now that youâve read a passage of Scripture and understand what the author is saying
take that next steplisten to God!
Scripture is a living thing, meant for people in all times & places. God speaks through it now just as much as he did when it was written.
To help our faith grow as we read Scripture, the Church gives us three important points for interpreting and understanding the Bible:1 âBe especially attentive âto the content and unity of the whole Scriptureââ . It all fits together, so donât just look at parts in isolation.1 Read the Bible within âthe living Tradition of the whole Churchâ , since the Holy Spirit guides the Church in interpreting Scripture. Especially helpful is seeing how the Saints, Popes, and Church councils have commented on Scripture.1 Pay attention to âthe coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelationâ . Like point #1, above, the entire deposit of faith forms a wonderful unitydoctrine sheds light on Scripture, and Scripture on doctrine.
The Bible As Personal
According to Saint Mark the Monk , He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor. We are to look throughout Scripture for a personal application. Our question is not simply What does it mean? but What does it mean for me? As Saint Tikhon insists, Christ Himself is speaking to you. Scripture is a direct, intimate dialogue between the Savior and myself-Christ addressing me and my heart responding. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.
I am to see all the narratives in Scripture as part of my own personal story. The description of Adams fall is equally an account of something in my own experience. Who is Adam? His name means simply man,human: it is I who am Adam. It is to me that God says, Where are you? . We often ask, Where is God? But the real question is the one that God puts to the Adam in each one of us: Where are you?
Who is Cain, the murderer of his brother? It is I. Gods challenge, Where is Abel your brother? , is addressed to the Cain in each of us. The way to God lies through love for other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my sister or brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my essential humanity.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Look Down At The Close Context
When we look down at the page, we seek to understand the words in their immediate context. The close context takes into account the divine inspiration and human character of the words written . This general kind of context includes the chosen words, communicated ideas, and the specific book were reading, understood within its historical setting. Its everything we see when we read the page in front of us, both the divine and human aspects of the book.
Scripture as a divine book means it is unified, from one Author, coherent, sufficient, perfect, and urgent. These truths carry several implications for how we read the Bible:
- We should read it with creaturely humility because these words are from our Creator and Lord
- We are to read with expectation
- We should also read with caution, recognizing that we are inclined to misunderstand what God has written
- We should read the Bible patiently to accurately discern what God has said
- We dont stand over Scripture we stand under it in submission to God
Since the Bible is also a human book, we need to pay attention to its human aspects. We must not focus on the Bibles divine character to the extent we neglect its human ones. Hunter and Wellum remind us that God speaks to us through what the authors wrote, which demands hard work from us to discern what the authors intended to say. Reading a given text in its close context means reading it in its literary and historical context .
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Interpreting The Old Testament
Narrative Literature: Much of the Old Testament contains narrative literature. First, the passage needs to be interpreted in its historical context and then applications can be drawn from the characters and events. In the book of Judges, only one verse is given to the judge Shamgar. It reads, After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad3 and he too delivered Israel . Why did God include this passage? Yes, it records an historical event. Also, the verse teaches Gods delivering power can come in an unexpected way, not with a mighty army but with one man wielding an oxgoad.
Wisdom Literature: Realize that much of the proverbial type of wisdom in the Old Testament is general truth based on observations but not absolute truths or promises. Two good examples are seen in the following: A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath . Another one is, Train a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it . Christians should not take these types of proverbial statements as promises of what will always happen but rather patterns that are generally true outcomes based on observation. A gentle answer will not always prevent an angry outburst but it is much more likely to than a harsh one. Christian parents who have a child who has gone astray from the faith may have done their best to train the child the right way but the child did not take it.
What Happens In Revelation
The book of Revelation unveils the spiritual war in which the Church of Jesus is engaged that cosmic conflict between God and His Christ and Satan and his evil allies . In this conflict, the Lamb of God Jesus has already won the decisive victory through His finished and sufficient work. The Church continues today to be assaulted by Satan, the dragon, in its death throes through persecution, false teaching, and the allure of material affluence and cultural approval .
John reveals the spiritual realities lying behind the churchs trials and temptations during the time between Christs first and second comings. He also affirms the certainty of the triumph of Christ in the New Heavens and Earth, those visions which both warn the Church and fortify it to endure suffering and to purify it from the defiling enticements of the present world order.
During that same century, the nation of England, which had harbored so many Huguenots, experienced a flowering of the gospel in the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The monarchies of those nations that rejected the gospel have disappeared. Meanwhile, blessed by the gospel they cherished, and the persecuted church they succored, Britain and Holland’s royal houses remain to this day.
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Consider The Context Of The Passage For A Better Understanding Of Its Meaning
This is often considered the first and most important principle for accurate interpretation. Bible scholars use the term context to discuss various aspects of the original writing of the texthistorical, social, political, religious, literary.
It is this literary concern I have in mind as the context of the passage.The writer follows a logical line of thought in what he writes. What he said in the previous verses or chapters and what he said in the ones that follow will help make the text in question clear.
Taking the text out of that context risks misinterpreting it. Often clues in the surrounding verses will open aspects of the meaning in your text you would have otherwise missed.
Read The Bible For Breadth Of Knowledge
To begin a mastery of the Bible, you must read the Bible. This may seem self-evident to some, but to others who have never developed the habit, it is groundbreaking. Some Christians do not read the Bible, or they only read snippets that are attached to daily devotionals. This will not get you where you want to go. You must begin to read the Bible widely. It is only by covering a lot of territory in Scripture that you gain a breadth of knowledge.
If you never read the Old Testament, you will never have a general knowledge of it. If you only read the Gospels, or the Epistles, you will never have a basic grasp of the other sections of the Bible. As a result, your life will be untouched by important truth, plus your ability to connect the dots from various different Scripture passagesa critical component of a mature Christian experiencewill be limited.
The good news is that there is a simple way to read for breadth of knowledge. If you read the Bible for five minutes a day, you will read the Bible over thirty hours a year!
Think of it!! Thirty hours a year! Perhaps no other discipline will provide a breadth of Bible knowledge more easily. If you want to master the Word so well that the Word masters you, begin by reading it.
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Why Must We Interpret Scripture
Moses stressed that a right relationship with the Lord is only possible when one hears Gods Word in a way that leads to fearing and following him . The Bible, therefore, is no empty word for you, but your very life ! Similarly, David highlighted that Gods words are perfect, sure, right, pure, true, righteous, desirable, and sweet and that these same words revive the soul, give wisdom, rejoice the heart, enlighten the eyes, inspire fear, warn, and guide obedience unto great reward . Only through an encounter with Gods pure, perfect, true, and abiding Word can people be
- Reborn in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit
- Empowered for holiness ,
- Sustained to glory ,
- Satisfied always .
Man lives through every word that comes from the mouth of God , so we must saturate our whole being with Scripture . We must seek its truths like silver and do so in a way that moves us to tremble in surrender and awe .