My Take on Interpreting the Bible

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I was recently asked how I interpret the Bible. That is an easy question on the surface but there is a lot that goes into actually doing it. Here is my response,

I am going to start off in this post talking about how I read/interpret/apply scripture and then answer your second question about salvation in a second post. This is going to take some time so hang in there with me by starting with some of my assumptions that underpin my beliefs and approach on reading the Bible and determining doctrine and practice. I hope this is organized well enough…typing it in facebook has its own challenges…so let this begin a conversation rather than be some sort of final word from me on it….feel free to ask questions and get clarification if any of this is confusing.

I affirm the authority of the word of God for our lives and practices of the church. I believe the Bible is inspired. I believe it has authority for us today. When you read anything it is important that you know why it was written. I believe it was written for the very reason John says he wrote his gospel so that by believing in Christ we can have life.

That is just a little background on where I am coming from on this. As far as how I interpret scripture there are a few things I would say. This is not an all encompassing statement of my approach because I will try to be concise in how I answer your question.

I know you are assuming that I whole heartedly throw CENI out the window but that is not the case. I grew up using the CENI (command, example and necessary inference) approach and still think it is helpful way to look at scripture to some extent. If God commands something I am going to do my best to follow what He said. If there is an example of something it needs to be very seriously considered and practiced as best we can but I do give slightly less weight to examples as I do to commands because commands are explicitly meant to be normative in their intent whereas examples are not always as certain to be normative…in other words, I don’t know that Paul intended us to take every possible example we find in scripture and use it every single time. This bears out in practice in many ways…for instance, we don’t fast when we appoint elders even though that is the example in Acts 14:23 and we would all affirm that is alright that we don’t and yet it is our example. So I take examples seriously but I am less stringent on them than I am with a command. Necessary inference gets you even further down on the level of certainty…we all make inferences when we interpret because not every box is checked, not every conceivable problem addressed and instructions were not given for every conceivable thing…so inferences are essential but they are more open to differences in interpretation than are commands or examples. So this level of CENI has the most room for problems.

The problem I have with CENI is that you can keep the text at arms length and read the whole Bible as a legal text and that often misses the point. According to CENI, I would need to conclude that I am sinful from birth as that is what is said in Psalm 51:5 but I don’t know anyone who concludes that in the RM (restoration movement) ascribing those words to the genre of poetry…we know when to appeal to genre…when our beliefs are challenged and yet genre should drive a lot more of our interpretation that it often does or is often recognized in the CENI approach.

My considerations when reading/interpreting/applying scripture:
So the process I am going to describe is an attempt to understand scripture in order to apply it. The first thing you notice when you receive a gift is the wrapping paper…the wrapping paper of scripture is genre. Is this poetry, is is narrative is it a legal text? The form words are wrapped in affects the meaning of the words (as we see in Psalm 51:5). You cannot read the whole Bible as a legal text and get at the meaning of the text in an adequate way.

So here we go…When we read, interpretation happens. Some things are simpler than others and require less/simpler interpretation like “do not steal”…I shouldn’t have to spend hours defining what is and isn’t stealing. But when we read, we interpret. That is just a basic tenet of good reading comprehension no matter what it is you are reading and it is good to be aware of the fact that we are always in the process of making interpretations.

Second, what we have in scripture was written at a particular time by particular people in light of particular circumstances. That is the “immediate context” of scripture. If we want to know what it means you have to get yourself as close to their context as you can to hear it as much as they would have heard it as possible. For example, if I picked up a letter (epistle ) that was written to my best friend and began reading I would understand much of what was written but it would probably leave me with a few questions. In an ideal world, I could go to my friend and ask those questions and it would give me a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding what was written. I would be closer to really knowing what the letter meant after that conversation but I am still only getting one side of the story. Even more ideally, I would talk with the person who wrote the letter and ask them questions…even more ideally I would get both people in the room and discuss the letter and then I would understand it as much as I possibly could and certainly better than I did when I read the letter with no context or further explanation.

Reading scripture is like that in many ways. We are picking up letters and documents written by real people to real people in real circumstances. We can understand the vast majority of what was said by a simple reading but to really get at what it means you have to do some work. Now, we obviously cannot interview Paul or the Ephesians but we can get to know their world, their language, and parts of their circumstances that help us understand what is going on. This is learning context.

Let me give you an example to illustrate this. If you are studying Philemon you can get the gist of what is going on in a simple reading. Paul is in prison writing a letter to slave owner and fellow Christian named Philemon asking (basically telling) him to take his slave Onesimus back without punishing him but taking him in again as a brother. What has always been odd about this story has been the question of what are the odds that a runaway slave would end up meeting an imprisoned Paul on accident? If you do some homework on runaway slaves you find out that it was a very serious offense (even a capital offense) but you also find documents that show that a slave who was in trouble could flee to find help in someone their owner respected in order to have that person plea for their safe return and reconciliation. Knowing that little piece of history fills in a lot of dots, makes sense of the story and puts Onesimus, Paul and Philemon all in a different light that gives you more the flavor of what is going on in this situation. This is just one example of how historical background gets you closer to the meaning of the text.

Now, our end game here is a relationship with God that is deep and intimate and part of that is learning to apply the text (which is part of what you are asking about). We cannot apply what we do not understand and we cannot understand something well unless we do a good job in the interpretation process.

Interpretation requires understanding a variety of things that establish context. Some of those things include:
– Historical context (see above example). Historical context (historical clues can give us some background to understand the world they lived in that helps make sense out of what they were saying (for instance, studying the household codes of other authors, or the pagan authors Paul quotes in Acts 17 or how households were run, or meal practices, etc all help us get a better picture of their world and how these words would have been heard at that point in history…another very helpful piece of this are the religious/Jewish and pagan backgrounds).
– Linguistic context – what do these words mean in the original language (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) and how does the immediate context help me understand which word in the range of possible meaning is the right selection in this particular verse?
– Immediate and broad literary context – how does the flow of this narrative or passage influence what is being said here is the immediate context. The broad context is about what else a given author and then other authors of scripture said on a particular matter. So immediate context would be reading the surrounding stories (in a narrative) or the surrounding arguments/points being made (in an epistle) to get how things connect, if they connect and how these connections impact what was being said – that is called “authorial intent” – what did this writer intend the reader to get from what they wrote?

Next, understanding a text requires asking questions of it and finding answers (finding answers by the things I mentioned above).

Along with that come the spiritual disciplines – praying the text, praying to understand the text, etc all help bring clarity to what I am reading. Asking God to help me understand what I am reading.

Last, I will look at how others have understood the text from both within the Restoration movement and from outside the RM (usually the best possibly commentary I can find that can help me in my study…usually relying on commentaries late in this process rather than early).

Once I have wrapped my mind around what is going on in the text, what is being said, etc I feel I am in a better position to make application of the text in our world. Many things are universal and were intended to be such. Some things were situational (written into a particular problem in their day) and yet even those things that are situational are still embedded with eternal and timeless truths that we can learn from and apply today.

It is important to be aware of the weaknesses of our approach. Just as I have laid out some weaknesses of the CENI approach, I feel it is important to describe some weaknesses of this approach.
1 – Translation…you still have to pick the best word in English when translating and that can be a bit subjective at times. It pays to be aware of this and attempt to be as objective as one can be.
2 – Too confident in that one feels like the historical background piece is the key that makes everything fit. We may be looking at something too far before the text or too far after the time of the text that may not be how things were. Anachronism is a problem. This can be especially true of applying the Talmud back into NT Judaism
3 – It can possibly over complicate things to where the text may be saying something simple but we end up getting tied up in knots because we chased rabbits that weren’t meant to be chased.
4 – We can give the commentaries too much weight or chase something clever rather than chase something with substance. There are lots and lots of commentaries out there, each trying to give their own take on things…it can be exciting to read something we have never thought of or that has never been said elsewhere and miss the meaning of the text by chasing something shiny/interesting.

4 Responses

  1. Matt, I want to pick at your use of some words in this post … admittedly a very fine point, but I think, important in this context. You began by writing “I affirm the authority of the word of God for our lives and practices of the church.”

    Now, I agree with that statement, however, in this context, the phrase “word of God” seems to be a reference to the Bible. If that’s correct, I disagree with the statement, because “word of God” in the Text is never a reference to the Text. It is only a reference to “logos” or all of the knowledge of God.

    In the Bible, the only word which refers to the Text of the Bible is “scriptures” and that is only a reference to the Old Testament.

    As I said … this is a fine point. But in the context of discussing interpretation, calling scripture the “word of God” gives more weight to the words on paper than are warranted.

    I agree scripture is a path to the “word of God” … accurately identified as the best pathway we have. But, it is possible to know the “word of God” without the Text. And by it’s own admission, the Text cannot contain everything there is to know about God.

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