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Thursday, January 11, 2007

principles of biblical interpretation, part 2

In my previous post I said that my first principle of biblical interpretation is to ask the question, "God, what are you trying to tell me through these scriptures?" Some might object that my approach is too subjective.

There are risks in approaching the Bible subjectively, I'll grant. It can be easy to read it not in terms of what does God want me to learn, but rather what do I think the passage means, or even what do I want it to mean?

On the other hand, there are dangers in trying to read the Bible objectively. We can easily separate ourselves from the text, relegating it to the long-ago past, or we can treat it as nothing more than the foundation of a systematic theology. These approaches can prevent us from really wrestling with the scriptures, making them personal.

And ultimately, that's what the word "subjective" means: personal.

But at the same time, a healthy approach to scripture must be more than personal. The Bible wasn't written just to me, and I'm not the only one who has wrestled with the texts. The community of Christians might be helpful to understanding scripture.

So, in addition to my first question, I'll add three more questions:

1. What did this passage mean to the original hearers?
2. What has this meant to Christians through the centuries?

Both scholarship and tradition can help answer these questions. Personally, I think scholarship is a little better than tradition at answering them, but that may be due to my modern biases. If I've learned anything reading from Christian tradition, I've learned that the questions we ask today are not always the same questions that have been asked through history. Likewise, the hot-button issues of today have not historically been matters of importance to Christian faith.


3. What does this mean to other Christians today?

For this one, we can get answers from church, Bible studies, devotionals, books, conversations, or even blogs. Perhaps this question is less useful than the first two, because it is easy to let the spirit of our age affect the way we think, and today's church is carrying a lot of cultural baggage. Sometimes to hear God's voice we must step away from the insulated world of today's church. Still, none of us can grow in our faith without being part of a faith community. We were not created to live in isolation (except for a few rare individuals.)

Looking at the scripture's meaning in these three ways, we're likely to get a range of ideas. These can form a starting point in understanding what God is trying to tell us. But understanding the meaning is only half the battle. The Bible is useless if it can't be applied today.

So, I'll add three more questions relating to application:

4. How does this apply to the world today?
5. How does this apply to the church today?
6. How does this apply to my own life today?

Maybe a particular passage does not have an answer for one or more of these questions. Or maybe the answer is just hard to find. Then maybe that's not the lesson for today. Maybe God is trying to tell us something else first.

Finally, because the Bible is a book about God, the last question is:

7. What does this passage tell me about God?

It's possible, using these questions as a starting point, to learn something different each time we read the same passage. And that's when it begins to come alive.



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