Understanding good Biblical Interpretation
A question I’ve been asked recently and have found to be of concern almost as long as I’ve been a Christian is this: “What’s the proper way to interpret the Bible?”
Technically, Bible scholars call Biblical interpretation “Hermeneutics”, but this is in many ways a very controversial question as historically the church has interpreted it in many ways. I have found the best way to interpret it consistently is an approach called Authorial Intent. Essentially Authorial Intent is reading the text of scripture in the way the human author and God intended it to be read and look for the plain meaning that was intended. This is the model in which I have attempted to read scripture for many years and which is gaining in popularity in Pastoral circles.
To understand Authorial Intent however we need to be aware of a few things that may complicate the plain meaning of the text.
First, as I mentioned above, the interpretive model of Authorial Intent is based on the idea that there is in a sense two authors; God and the human author. God is the ultimate author as he inspires the human author to communicate a message to His people. The human author uses his own words and cultural norms to communicate that message to God’s people, sometimes first verbally and then in written form. The human author writes the ideas that God has inspired him to write, but often from his own perspective. We see this in almost every book of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For example David in the Psalms writes down his prayers and songs, even poetic forms of his personal frustrations. We understand this to be inspired but they are David’s thoughts, not necessarily God’s. In many of Paul’s epistles Paul writes greetings to the people of the churches he is writing. This is inspired but Paul isn’t dictating God’s thoughts in these letters.
It seems to be also true that God can inspire the human author to write about things he really doesn’t understand fully, and sometimes at all. In many places in the Old Testament we see allusions to The Messiah and events that can point to the Messiah in ways that the human author doesn’t seem to be aware. These kinds of allusions happen throughout the Old Testament but maybe especially in the books of the Prophets such as Isaiah. Isaiah in chapter 7 of his book speaks of a child that will be born that seems to happen in his lifetime, but later talks of events that can only refer to the Messiah; Jesus. Sometimes as in Jeremiah, the Lord uses two different authors for the same thing. He inspires Jeremiah the Prophet to speak his message but uses Baruch as the secretary to physically write down the words. The essential message is given to Jeremiah, but God must also inspire Baruch as he does the actual writing.
Sometimes finding the intent can be a challenge as the context and circumstances of the human author is usually much different from our own. We can read the text for the plain meaning as we would read our English translation and actually totally miss the point of both the human author and God. That is because there are many places the human writer uses euphemisms that would have been understood by the local audience (the audience contemporary to the writer) but which in the passing of time has fallen out of use. There is also the change of culture and words that can radically affect how we understand what was intended. To address this problem scholars often use a process call the Grammatical-Historical method to understand what was the author’s original intent. This entails research into the language, culture, and historical situation of when the passage was written so that what the author was speaking about can be more easily understood. For example, if you’ve ever read or heard a Pastor explain what the original Biblical word in the Greek meant he was using the Grammatical method. If you’ve ever heard someone explain who the Pharisees were in more detail than the Bible gives they were using the Historical method.
Sometimes people become concerned when the level of detail necessary, in order to gain a more complete understanding, is revealed. The question often becomes then for the average Christian how much can they really know about the scriptures if they don’t have the resources needed to gain the proper understanding. Of course anyone needs at least some education in order to read the Bible for themselves. Without the ability to read at all the amount understood will be severely limited. However, much of the Bible is written in such a way that the basic meaning of the text is available without deep research. A person doesn’t need to be highly trained or a scholar to get these basic meanings, but that is why the Lord has designated some to be Pastors and teachers. While even a novice can understand the basics, we need to have the humility to be aware of our limitations in understanding the scriptures and be willing to be taught by those whom God has gifted with the knowledge and ability to to gain deeper insights.
There is much more that could be said about this but hopefully this will help us understand the best basic approach to reading, understanding and interpreting the scriptures. Next time we will address proper approaches to application. Knowing the scriptures is incomplete if that knowledge isn’t properly applied.