Read the Bible 101 [from a reflective essay]

1

[free video, audio and pdf commentaries by my favourite evangelical commentator, Dr Bob Utley]

Introduction

Having both been a Christian for a number of years and having ministered in various capacities, I have come to hold the scriptures as the highest authority for the life and witness for both the believer and the church.  Nonetheless, one of the great concerns I have held over the years is the way in which scripture is to be interpreted and therefore after completing the module 406.3.4, “Using the Bible in Theological Reflection,” I began to reflect upon a hermeneutical model which presents an easy way to understand and interpret the bible.

 

1. Theologically – [it means “study of God” and is used to mean in a systematic way]

Within the Wesleyan Reform Union, the denomination in which I am a minister, one of the articles in the statement of faith reads:

“That the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, as originally given, are of divine inspiration and infallible, supreme in authority in all matters of faith and conduct.”[1]

Therefore, I would teach firstly that the initial aim of biblical interpretation would be to go back to the original meaning of the original author to his original audience.  This means that the literary and historical context and the composition for particular types of literature must be treated in a particular type of way (no-one would read a poem and an encyclopaedia in the same way would they?) and the content of a passage must be understood before it can be interpreted and/or applied.  This means that passages that have been plucked out randomly are not of “divine inspiration” because they are not “as originally given.  Fee and Stuart write:

The first task of the interpreter is…the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the originally intended meaning.”[2]

Secondly, I would add that no text of itself is inspired.  No!  It is the whole of scripture that is inspired and therefore the reader must not only look at the references which bolster his particular view but those that detract from it.  The reason for this is that many biblical truths within scripture are held in dialectical tension.  So the same bible that teaches that salvation is based on grace is the same bible that teaches the importance of works.[3]  Moreover, the same bible that teaches God’s sovereignty in salvation is the same bible that teaches of man’s responsibility.[4]  If these great truths are held in biblical tension it would not only bring balance to the Christian life but it would go some way towards providing a comprehensive and holistic understanding of biblical theology.

 

2. Christologically – [it means “study of Christ” and is used to mean in reverence of and in light of the Saviour]

My next stage would be to read the bible Christologically.  Hence, I would deem the bible as merely a literary work and spiritually closed unless one has a personal saving faith in Christ.[5]  This does not mean that we must be arrogant and see that nothing can be gleaned by the non-Christian’s study of scripture nor that non-Christian commentaries may not contain some insightful truth.  What I am saying is that the scripture is of no salvific or revelatory value unless a man has yielded his life to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ through a personal relationship.  Without this study is of little or no value and may even be doctrinally detrimental.[6]

Secondly I would teach that the birth, the life, the message, the death, the burial, the resurrection, the mission and return of Jesus (sometimes known as “the Christ event”) is fundamentally the essence of all Scripture.[7]  Therefore, the words of Christ and the teaching of the New Testament church fulfills the Old Testament.  This does not in any way mean that we can read full-blown New Testament doctrine into the Old Testament, unless done so by the New Testament authors themselves, but neither does it mean that the Hebrew Scriptures are of a lesser value or that they should be discarded or seen as substandard.  It means that God’s revelation should be seen as a multi-layered lens made up of the written and the incarnate word which must always be held together.[8]

 

3. Pneumatologically – [it means “study of the Spirit” and is used to mean in total reliance upon the power of the Spirit]

Finally, the Bible must be understood pneumatologically for it is a closed book unless illuminated by the Holy Spirit.  It is for this reason why preaching and reading should always be done in an attitude of prayerful humility.  The Spirit is able to quicken our minds and hearts, and enables us to understand, communicate and respond to Scripture.  By God’s grace He even allows us to be illuminated by scripture that has been taken completely out of context and has been misapplied.  There is no doubt that God does this not because of our faulty interpretive skills but in spite of them.  Nonetheless here I would advise caution and say to those who are moving from revelation (objectively revealed in the text) to speculation (subjective feelings about the text) that they must be completely honest with themselves and their listeners or they move into the realms of false teaching and heresy.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.

Let me give an example.  I was at a church and they shared the text Luke 6:38:

38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Then the congregation were exhorted to give and as they gave they were encouraged to allow the Holy Spirit to show them individually if this text meant healing or financial breakthrough for them.  Whilst I believe in the Holy Spirit and believe that His power is needed to illuminate the Scripture, I also knew that this was not a promise about healing or monetary breakthrough.  In fact the passage was in a context on forgiveness (see picture above) and was preceded by a passage on loving your enemies (Luke 6:27-36) and proceeded by two passages on false discipleship (Luke 6:43-45 and 6:46-49).  Now whilst God may have “spoken” to those and brought healing and monetary breakthrough, the preacher himself mishandled Scripture and used an imperative to lean upon the Spirit as an excuse to mask his scriptural laziness or his blatant deceit.

 

Conclusion

It is because of him and men like him that I hope to spend more time on this model so that in my preaching and teaching that believers are able to interpret and apply the bible well.  That they may be able to say, in the words of St Augustine:

“Let us therefore yield ourselves and bow to the authority of Holy Scripture, which can neither err nor deceive.”[9]

Bibliography

Fee G D & Stuart D, 2005 How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth: Zondervan, Grand Rapids

Hodgkin A M, 1969, Christ in All Scriptures: A Pickering Classic, Basingstoke

Wilson M R, 2005 Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith: Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids

 

References

[2] Fee and Stuart, 2005, p. 23

[3] Ephesians 2:8-10

[4] Compare John 3:16 and John 6:37-40

[5] John 10:25-27

[6] 2 Timothy 4:3-4

[7] Wilson, 2005, p.29

[8] Matthew 22:45, Luke 24:25-27, 24:44-48 , John 1:1, 8:56

[9] Water, 2000, p. 117 quoting St Augustine

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