How I'm Trying to Read the Bible
Leadership is a practice based in biblical study and theological reflection. It has to be if it is to be "Christian." The bible and the ideas we draw from it provide us with the worldview, the vision, the character, and the means of leading toward the common good--shalom for all people.
But there are about as many approaches to interpreting the bible as there are interpreters, so I thought I would use this post to lay out a few of my presuppositions when it comes to biblical study--more focused on the "what" than the "why" or the "how." This has been a gradual process for me (an unending one I hope) but my thoughts took on much greater clarity (along with a whole new set of questions) this year.
I'll start somewhat snarkily with this claim: a verse cannot be understood by studying it.
What I mean is this. When I was being taught how to study scripture, probably starting around Junior High, I was taught to focus on a few verses at a time, asking the “when, what, where, why, who?” questions. I might need to look around before or after the verse to figure out what the "therefore was there for," but for the most part once I answered those questions and prayed about it, God would help me understand what this text meant--usually skipping straight to what it meant for me.
Now these are by no means unimportant questions. We have to keep asking them, but that does not mean we can stick with Junior High bible study methods and expect them to allow our minds to wrap around one of the most complex books ever written in multiple literary genres, by multiple authors, speaking multiple languages, multiple millennia ago in cultures radically different from our own.
These four hermeneutical pre-commitments represent the way I am trying to approach the text these days...
1) We are incapable of approaching the text from outside our own sociocultural location. This does not mean that we have to read our contemporary meanings into the text, but that our worldview is fundamentally shaped by our context. As exegetes, we must acknowledge up front that this affects our interpretive ability. Therefore, to write “Theology” as though we are objective readers is simply more than we should/can ever claim. It is possible to become a “border crosser” by gaining experience in other cultures, developing our cultural intelligence (CQ), and even by immersing ourselves in the biblical world, but we are never fully capable of reading scripture from its author’s perspective. I have already said a good deal about this here, here and here, so I'll stop repeating myself.
What is beautiful about this is that it means the act of reading scripture draws us into community and gift sharing with the body of Christ. My contextual lenses help me notice certain things in the Bible that others may miss, but in order to see all that God has provided in this incredible book I need to also listen to the insights of men and women from Asia, Africa and South America, of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and of different life experiences. Together our theology will be far richer than when we form conclusions on our own.
2) After acknowledging our context, we must come into an encounter with scripture recognizing that it is predominantly literature written as narrative in a historical context. Therefore, I cannot only ask the “w” questions of a text, but must also ask how it fits within the grand narrative being told through the entire bible, the salvation history of God’s activity in creation. Biblical scholar Sylvia Keesmaat describes the story like a 6 Act play:
“Act 1 is the creation of a good world. Act 2 is the distortion of that world by sin. Act 3 is the calling of Israel to be a blessing to this fallen world. Act 4 is the coming of Jesus, where sin is decisively dealt with. Act 5, scene 1, is the early church, where the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are grappled with and lived out in the lives of the first Christian communities. Further scenes unfold, from the apostolic era, through the patristic period, and so on to the present. Act 6 is the coming consummation, when Jesus will return and we will join him on the new earth at the resurrection of the dead.”
We come to the text as sojourners living in the story it reveals--still in Act 5, awaiting Act 6
I must also ask what the specific historical context of the verse is, what the author’s lifeworld means for the text, and how it fits within the literary context of the book or letter that contains it. Deeper study into the bible's historical, economic, and sociological backgrounds is never a waste of time.
3) Jesus is the key point of departure for biblical reflection because “Jesus Christ is the self-disclosure of God in history” (God Our Savior, Norman Kraus). All verses only make sense in the light of his story. And that means including the whole story stretching from pre-existence with the Father to fully human incarnation in a stable, to his childhood, adult ministry, betrayal and unjust trial, crucifixion, death and burial for three days (and whatever was happening on the other side of the grave!), resurrection, time spent on earth in his resurrected body, ascension to the right and of the Father, giving of his Spirit, presence through the Church as the body of Christ, and eventual return to remake creation and rule on the new earth with his people.
One caveat to this. Jesus makes no sense except against Old Testament, Roman and Second Temple Judaism backgrounds. So while I am saying that he must be the starting point for biblical interpretation out of one side of my mouth, I am also acknowledging that he requires a good bit of interpretation. Sorry, but we aren't benefitted by shying away from the complexities.
4) A quote from Professor of New Testament Tim Geddert can sum this one up: “Theology is important not because it is “Truth” or certain or final, but because it helps us move closer to that which is far more important still. The bible is more important than theology. The triune God is more important than the bible. The goal is to encounter, relate to, and follow God. Don’t get it backwards.”
The goal of biblical interpretation is not--contrary to what is often portrayed--about formulating the right doctrines. Theology matters. I am deeply committed to it. But if our convictions about what the bible means begin to take precedence over actually knowing and following Jesus our Lord and God we will wind up in all kinds of mess. Biblical study is about entering into relationship with God, learning to be his disciple and learning to help others know and follow him too.