Biblical Interpretation: Doing it Right

Matters that deserve consideration

One of the reasons that I began this blog was to provide documentation for my growth as a believer in Christ. When I look back at it, sure I see mistakes and gaffs but I also see something else. I see a desire to grow, to interact, to be more consistent in my faith. That may sound a little self-aggrandizing, but if you have been following the blog for some time, I hope that it’s something that you can see as well. In the time that I’ve taken in writing, one of the points that I have tried to stress is the need for proper, sound, and consistent biblical interpretation. 

One of the first series that I wrote, was in interacting with a biblical passage, trying to understand it and make proper application. From there, we looked at passages that are often misrepresented by opponents, such as this one, and then—most recently—a massive series on an biblical text that had a fair amount of influence on the authors contained in the New Testament, which I hope you have been following. In each of these instances, I have tried to be consistent in how I handled them so that, the same method used in one, wouldn’t result in a different interpretation when used in another. 

In my interactions, I am constantly asked whether or not I take the Bible literally? The question really makes no sense when you think about what the Bible is: a collection of ancient documents of various types, covering a span of some thousand years in authorship. It has historical texts, and legal texts and books of poetry, and letters. It’s a library, a compendium, an anthology, so to ask if one takes it “literally”, assumes that the Bible is one singular kind of document, which it’s not. You cannot take the Bible literally, it must be taken literarily, as each genre allows. That should be the first step taken in engaging in biblical interpretation: determining the genre of the text. Failure to properly identify the genre sets one on a path to a faulty interpretation. 

Next, in this method, once the genre has been determined. It should be determined who the audience is. It’s natural to think, “I’m the one reading it, so I must be the audience.” That particular statement is, both, a true and false statement. The fact is that there can be two audiences: a direct audience—those to whom the text was originally written to, such as a letter—and an indirect audience, that being you, the one reading the text. The reason that this is important is because of and important distinction between a descriptive text and a prescriptive text. Descriptive texts, we could call them historical texts, because they are describing events or actions. Even texts that appear prescriptive, are likely to be descriptive, because they are describing the past. For example, the biblical law codes contained in the Pentateuch are not binding upon Christians as legal doctrine, rather they serve as a demonstration of God’s goodness and justice, when contrasted against the ancient law codes of other nations. At the same time, while specific legislation might not apply, there are underlying principles that are timeless and serve as the basis for western law today. 

Also, one must be considerate of the language. My native language is English. Whatever language you speak, when you pick up a Bible—unless you have been trained in the biblical languages—you are reading a translation. Translations have a level of interpretation pre-loaded into the text. We must recognize that the biblical authors didn’t speak English, and their context wasn’t the 21st century. They did not have to deal with the ravages of the African slave trade, an American revolution and Civil War, or Enlightenment age. They didn’t see the horrors of two world wars, and might not have believed that the world was round, or that the earth not only orbited the sun, but did so while rotating. However, the writers knew the human creature, his motivations, and his beliefs. They, the Old Testament writers, used a primarily provincial language, with unique idioms and colloquialisms in which they weren’t afraid to engage in play-on-words by which they displayed contempt for their subjects. The authors of the texts which comprised the New Testament had similar considerations also.  Simply put: they weren’t necessarily objective historians chronicling events, they were assembling a narrative meant to convey to the reader—which wasn’t supposed to be us, in their eyes—a sense of place and purpose in the world. 

But, Triggerman, don’t you believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God? Don’t you believe that the word of God is valid for all times and all places?

Yes. Absolutely I do, but that’s a theological conclusion, which one has to draw on their own. I recognize that the texts that exist in the Bible are products of history, that they were produced by men, in a specific time, with a specific perspective, with a specific purpose, and that didn’t necessarily include us, from their perspective. But in the providence of God, given that the Scriptures are the means by which he was decided to reveal himself and his will to his people. Failing to recognize that the means by which the Scriptures were produced were a human exercise often misses a critical element needed in sound biblical interpretation: historical context.

The texts had to mean something to the original audience reading them. It’s rather selfish for us to assume that the texts of the Scriptures are meant for us exclusively…in fact it’s rather narcissistic. Failing to treat the texts as, of first nature, historical that were written to convey an understanding of history, from a certain point in history immediately sets one on an interpretational trajectory where they will most certainly have to veer into contradiction. Interestingly, how I arrived at such a conclusion comes from two different directions, an atheist and a Christian scholar, saying essentially the same things. When you’re hearing the same problem being addressed from two opposing ends of a spectrum, making the same complaint, it’s usually a valid conclusion to draw.

So, what’s the point of this post?

It’s something of a warning: be very careful handling the Bible.

Just as a personal note: this will be my last regular post of 2018. I’m taking a break until January. The events of the past year, as well as some projects that I have taken on are…well… they have just sucked the life out of me. So take the opportunity to get caught up on the study of Deuteronomy, which I will be wrapping up in 2019. Also, there’s the analysis and response to Stephen Maitzen, which will be completed as well. I have some other projects that seem to be lining up, but they’re tentative. In the meantime, everyone please have a safe and very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

7 comments

  1. Technical point: you did forget about modern Israelis, born in Israel, whose native language is Hebrew. When they pick up an Old Testament (which they might call the Tanakh) they are *not* reading a translation.

    Not so technical point. I don’t follow here:

    “They did not have to deal with the ravages of the African slave trade, an American revolution and Civil War, or Enlightenment age. They didn’t see the horrors of two world wars, and might not have believed that the world was round, or that the earth not only orbited the sun, but did so while rotating. However, the writers knew the human creature, his motivations, and his beliefs.”

    Are you saying that while the natural sciences did progress, psychology and sociology could not? And that while the authors of the Bible could lack knowledge in matters of celestial bodies, they could not lack it in matters of human mind? Could they not, for example, err in their views of differences and similarities between typical male and female minds?

    Inspiration, as you note yourself, is a separate consideration, we are talking about human knowledge of the human authors.

    • I was primarily speaking to those who do not speak or read the original languages, that are *dependent* upon translation. Such can often miss subtlety that is present in the original language text, which is why it is a good idea to use different translations and other resources (commentaries, bible dictionaries, etc) when trying to ascertain the meaning of a text.

      The point in bringing up those historical issues is so that we recognize that we aren’t reading the text with those in mind. We can’t read the laws describing the complex socioeconomic relationship slapped with the monicker “slave” with a concepts from the 18th and 19th centuries, or that warfare then was anything like those.

      I would argue that the biblical writers realized that humans are socially and psychologically much more complex than we credit them, and that we often use sociology and psychology somewhat dismissively.

      • Agreed that it is easy to miss original subtlety, I was on more about not excluding Israelis accidentally. Judging by your political positions (as far as I could read them) you would certainly not want to do that.

        While it is certainly easy to use any particular modern theory dismissively, I would also argue that Biblical authors were still sometimes beholden to their time and society in what they knew of human nature. The obvious example appears to be around 1Cor 14:34.

      • I was very careful to point out that my admonition for care was for those who are dependent upon a TRANSLATION of the text.
        I would argue that even being able to read the Hebrew or Greek doesn’t automatically mean that one is able to understand the text, or interpret it meaningfully if the other considerations aren’t taken into account.

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