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Saturday, January 06, 2007

principles of biblical interpretation, part 1

Harvey Bluedorn has laid out a set of general principles for the interpretation of scripture at the Trivium Pursuit blog. (Hat tip to Henry Neufeld of Participatory Bible Studies blog.)

I can't say I agree with these principles, or the stated goal behind them:

If there is such a thing as truth, and if it is important to know the truth, and if the Scriptures are the truth, then it is important to know and understand what the Scriptures mean.

If we all chose our own private way and took anything to mean whatever we desired it to mean, then how often would we agree? And why would we agree? We would agree about as often as we happened to have the same desire.

But if we all understood and followed the truth, how often would we disagree? And why would we disagree? We would disagree about as often as we failed to understand and follow the truth.

The bottom line is, if we all agreed to follow the truth of Scriptures, then the differences among us would be due to our ignorance or misunderstanding of the meaning of Scripture. So ultimately, our unity depends upon our having the same principles of interpretation.

If we all applied the same principles (these or any others), we might all reach an agreement about the meaning of the text, but truth does not always follow consensus. We might all agree, yet still be wrong.

Beyond that, the purpose of the Christian community is not intellectual agreement. Jesus did not say, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you get all the facts right." No, he said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

He drove home this point with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritans had their theology all wrong. Theirs was a strange mix of Judaism and paganism. But in his parable Jesus made the point that the more important thing was showing mercy to someone in need.

That's not to say that Scripture reading is not important. In fact, my wife has observed that whenever I get out of the habit of spending time with God, I become less loving. And one of the ways to spend time with God is by reading the Bible.

But if I'm reading it with no higher goal than to confirm whatever I already think, then I'm not really spending time with God. To get anything out of Scripture, we must be prepared to be challenged. Harvey Bluedorn is perfectly right in rejecting any type of Bible study that merely conforms to our own wishes or desires.

On the other hand, if we are all part of the body of Christ, and each part has its own function, and the parts must function together to keep the body healthy, then it might make sense for God to give us each different lessons as we read the Scriptures. Maybe our disagreements are the result of our taking the lessons God has for each of us, and trying to apply them to others. Maybe, though, God has other lessons for them.

All this is a long way of introducing my first principle of biblical interpretation: "God, what are you trying to tell me through these scriptures?"

I have more to say, but it's late. I'll continue in my next post.



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