July 16, 2019

While We’re Talking About Interpreting the Bible

Oh. We’re not talking about interpreting the Bible? Well….I am, so deal.

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.)

Graham Goldsworthy, Gospel Centered Hermenuetics .

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.

(I examined a lot of this in a classic IM post on how to preach books of the Bible.)

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.


  1. Hmm,

    Remind me not to write when very tired. One of the lines should have said, “. . . likes to quote the figures that show that during the revival, the Roman Catholics grew every bit as fast. . .”

    Also, some of my logic does not quite flow like I would like. Oh well, maybe a good night’s sleep. And, would you believe tomorrow I have another trip?

  2. I must expound here upon what I’ve posted in other threads — before the Babylonian captivity and the return under Ezra and Nehemiah, there was no Bible. There were scrolls spread out and hidden all over the place, rarely read or studied.

    We’ve all been taught that the only way to get to the true “Faith of the Fathers” is to exhaustively study the Scriptures. This is the offspring of Rabbinical Judaism — the two tiered student/teacher v the illiterate masses model.
    Now, we are told that whoever has the time, wherewithal and scholarly knowledge to peruse the great expository theological volumes can get to the Truth. And then maybe you can make a living teaching others — either in the classroom or from the pulpit, be they actual or virtual.

    But the Hebrew Fathers of the Faith, of whom Abraham is the Chief, had only the voice they heard, the gift of Faith to believe that what they had heard was true (despite how it seemed to them and their cultural communities), and the courage to act upon that belief.

    We are graced with having the reports from those who saw with their own eyes what the Fathers longed to see but didn’t. Again I say that the only real study that needs to be done is to look with virgin eyes and hearts upon the attitude and actions of the One who is and was the only full representation of God that human eyes and ears have ever beheld. After that honest and open examination, all else becomes clear ….

  3. Here’s a criticism of Roman Catholic theology from a former atheist/charismatic evangelical/ fundamentalist-pentacostal/self-styled non-denominational/devout practicing Roman Catholic (in chronological order):

    The center of Catholic life is the Eucharist, perpetually adored in the tabernacles of every church, chapel and cathedral. We must enter these sanctuaries with worship and reverence in our hearts and outward attitudes.

    But the Incarnate Body and Blood of our crucified Lord and Savior is in the earthly form of food and drink, meant for consumption by the faithful congregants. And, so, the consecrated hosts there, either enclosed in those specially designed and blessed metal containers or exposed in ornate monstrance, do not really achieve their own fulfillment until they are ingested by what the metal containers represent, i.e., a living and breathing human container.

    Perhaps the teaching of more than a little Buddhist-style reverence of the real thing rather than the symbolic is what’s needed here ….

  4. Surfnetter, no need to eat every host you see. Sometimes, it’s important to put the Eucharist in perspective: which is what the monstrance, artistically, is supposed to accomplish.

  5. I’m not a glutton in that sense.

    The monstrance is symbolic of the majesty of Christ, artificially illuminating for the “general” congregatant adorers what was specifically revealed to those receiving “special” revelation into the Beatific Vision.

    But we all can see the real state of our brethren who are all living monstrances. When I focus the very same reverence on my neighbor communicants that I do on the symbolic monstrance, I see the Incarnation illuminating their helplessness and neediness — not their unworthiness. I can do nothing with Original Sin — neither mine or anybody else’s. But my original wounds begin to be healed when I reach out in love and compassion to my neighbor who is in need of something I can give.

  6. congregant

  7. The whole purpose of the Communion rite is not that we can just adore the consecrated Host. He said, “Take this and eat it,” not “Take this and adore it.”

    The revelation therefore is not that we have Jesus with us in the moments between the consecration and the eating. It is that we have Him here in ourselves and in each other perpetually.

    In this light, just consider the Letter of St. John — how can you say you love God if you don’t love your brother …?

  8. More for MDS

    I was not expecting this to be a travel week, which is really making life interesting. GRIN.

    I agree with you in one way. One does not see the “vibrancy” that one tends to see in various Protestant communities. In fact, the influx of converts into Orthodoxy has helped to bring some of that vibrancy into Eastern Orthodoxy.

    And, yet, I have also observed some things that have made me think. I have met many “cradle” Orthodox who are the children of the children of the children of the children. . . . You get the idea. Particularly, belonging to a denomination that is of Arab origin, I have met people who can literally trace their ancestry in Christianity almost to the time of Christ. That is something that is rather rare among Protestants. It seems as though each Protestant generation has to struggle to preserve their children in a way that the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic do not.

    And, so, it makes me realize that there is a different type of faithful stream flowing through the Catholic Churches (EO’s and RC’s). I used to denigrate that stream. I would say that it is nominal. I would say that it is not truly alive. I would say that they do not understand salvation. I would even hint strongly that they have reproduced generations of unsaved people. But, when all is said and done, I look back and have to repent of that attitude. When all is said and done, they have accomplished what many non-EO’s and non-RC’s have not been able to accomplish. They have successfully passed on the faith for generations. And that is something of which to stand in awe.

    I have read some people who says that Protestantism is a “hothouse” religion. That is, it relies on a constant stimulus in order to keep people involved and engaged. While that is an insult, there is a partial truth there. Nevertheless, I would not mind some of that hothouse experience being present among the Orthodox. What I would not wish is for us to become focused on a hothouse type of experience. I would like the heat to be turned up in such a way that we do not become reliant on experience to shore up our faithfulness.

    So, I do not have a full answer to what you are saying. I have seen the Lord working to “warm up” the Orthodox. May He also work with Protestants to teach them the ability to pass the faith on for generation after generation.

  9. In my experience in studying the scriptures I have found that my study method grows and changes with me. I believe there are many layers of truth to be discovered in the scriptures and I am always looking for interpretations that bring something additional, something enlightening, something I haven’t caught before.
    To this end, I try to read with the Spirit, I like to listen to others give their interpretation, I like to listen to the teachers and leaders give their take, I like to read commentaries and blogs, and so on.

    Is there a wrong way to read the scriptures? Of course there is. If the scriptures are wrested so that they seem to justify committing sin, that is certainly out of line.

    One thing I think that we get wrapped around the axel about is passages that don’t seem to make sense or seem wrong. It is tempting to try to twist them around to fit our ideas, but I’ve learned that I should just let them be and keep reading them along with everything else and studying them and praying for understanding. I have faith that sooner or later answers come.