Monday, October 27, 2003

Interpreting the Bible...

Greg Koukl, from Stand to Reason (a Christian apologetics organization), has written a short article titled Never Read a Bible Verse. The point of his piece is to get us away from focusing solely on a particular Bible verse and look, at a minimum, at the paragraph the verse is contained in. Walt Russell, a professor at Biola University, relates in his book Playing With Fire how a "word" is the lowest level of information in written communication (the lowest level that has "meaning" attached to it). From that level we move up to the highest level through a series of steps that include: sentence, paragraph, chapter, book and, finally, "big idea." Here's the rub - the intended meaning of a word can only truly understood when it is viewed within the context of the higher levels. The problem we as Christians tend to have is that we primarily focus on the lower level (e.g., sentence / verse) without taking the time to understand the bigger picture. Russell relates how we typically will read the Bible expecting to get blessed personally - in other words, we read it for insights on ourselves. We might end up asking ourselves, "What does this verse (or passage) mean to me?" Russell says we should be asking, "What does this verse (or passage) mean?" The meaning, or interpretation, is static. It means what the author wanted it to mean when he wrote it, and it has continued to mean that up to the present. Now that makes the meaning a Public thing - it is shared equally among all. This flies in the face of deconstructionism which considers the text to mean whatever the reader wishes it to mean. Okay, so how does that static meaning help us? Russell comments on how, when seeking spiritual formation as we study the Bible, we need to understand the Public to Private methodology involved. As stated above, Meaning is Public, but the next level towards Private is Application. There may be several intended applications of a particular text - the applications may be broad or they may be narrow (e.g., you can't take "Thou shalt not murder" much farther down the road). The final step towards a Private aspect of interpretation is Significance. The text may have a personal significance for you that differs from me simply because we have different life experiences. Koukl and Russell believe that the literary genre will also dictate how we are to interpret the passage. The Bible is a collection of literary genres and these genres have unique contributions to how we communicate. Again, this makes sense if you understand the aspect of communication. Your expectations of the information received differ between watching Seinfeld and the Evening News... or reading the Front Page vs. the Classifieds... or listening to Neil Diamond vs. Bob Dylan... or studying I Kings vs. Psalms. That's because they represent different "genres." The genre has distinct structure and purpose and it guides how we should interpret the text. A classic example is Jeremiah 29:11. A lot of people like to hold that verse close to their hearts as evidence that God has a specific plan for their lives (indeed, a plan for prosperity and freedom from harm). When Koukl disagrees with that line of thinking someone invariably brings up this verse. He responds by asking them what they know specifically about the prophet Jeremiah (e.g., who was he?, when did he live?, what were his prophecies concerning?, etc.). Typically they know very little. He then asks them to at least read the paragraph that Jeremiah 29:11 is contained in (if not the entire chapter). Do that for yourself and you'll find that the Lord was speaking to exiles who had been banished from the land... and it was to be 70 years before the Lord was to bring them back! It should also be clear from the passage that even though the Lord did have a plan for the exiles, He did not expressly say He would reveal it to them. The focus of the passage is not about us, but about God and Israel, and how He dealt with their obedience and disobedience. That's the main contribution of the prophetic books and it should structure how we read and study them. Therefore, rather than read a verse looking for insight on ourselves, Koukl and Russell say to read the passage in light of the literary unit. A practical example with regards to Jeremiah 29:11 is to study the Lord's letter to the exiles in light of the entire book of Jeremiah which is, in turn, studied in light of the entire Bible. P.S. Koukl and Russell also reference How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. You can listen to lectures by Stuart here.

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