How to read Bible for All Its Worth
by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart,
published by Zondervan, 2003.
CHAPTER 1 : Introduction : The need to interpret
Every so often we meet someone who says with great feeling,”You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what it says.” After that they can also say,”any person with half a brain can read it and understand it”. Usually this remark reflects the layperson’s protest against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school teacher, who by “interpreting” seems to be taking the Bible away from the common man or woman.
There is a lot of truth in that protest. We agree that Christians should learn to read, believe, and obey the Bible. And also we agree that the Bible should not be an obscure book if studied and read properly. So the most serious problem people have with the Bible is not with a lack of understanding, but with the fact that they understand most things so well! For example a text as “Do everything without complaining or arguing” (Phil 2:14), is not with understanding it, but with obeying it – putting it into practice.
Actually the aim of good interpretation is simple : to get at the “plain meaning of the text” But if the plain meaning is what interpretation is all about, then why interpret? Why not just read? Does not the plain meaning come simply from reading? In a sense, yes. But in a truer sense, such an argument is both naïve and unrealistic because of two factors : the nature of the reader and the nature of Scripture.
THE READER AS AN INTERPRETER
The first reason one needs to learn how to interpret is that, whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. Most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also assume that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understanding of words and ideas. For example, when a person hears the word “cross”, most people automatically to think of a Roman cross (†), although there is little likelihood that was the shape of Jesus’ cross, which was probably shaped like a “T”.
Good translators, therefore, take the problem of language differences into consideration. But it is not an easy task. For example in Romans 13:14, shall we translate “flesh” (as in KJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, etc.) because this is the word Paul used? Or shall we “help” the reader and translate it to “sinful nature” (as in the NIV, GNB, etc.) because this is what Paul’s word really means?
THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE
A more significant reason for the need to interpret lies in the nature of Scripture itself. The Bible is at the same time both human and divine. As Professor George Ladd said,”The Bible is the Word of God given in the words of [people] in history. It is the dual nature of the Bible that demands of us the task of interpretation.
Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture. We must listen and obey it. But because God chose to speak his Word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity; each document is conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written. Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the tension that exists between its eternal relevance and historical particularity.
If we only think that the Bible only in terms of its eternal relevance, they tend to think of it only as a collection of propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. In the other hand, the fact that the Bible has a human side is our encouragement; it is also our challenge. We must try to understand what was said to them back then and there, and also must learn to hear the same Word in the here and now. One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that to communicate his Word to all human conditions. God chose to use almost every available kind of communication : narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws, poetry, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.
THE FIRST TASK : EXEGESIS
Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible. This is the task that often calls for the help of the expert, that person whose training has helped him or her to know well the language and circumstances of the texts in their original setting. But one does not have to be an expert to do good exegesis.
LEARNING TO DO EXEGESIS
The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text. There are two basic kinds of questions one should ask of every biblical passage : those that relate to context and those that relate to content.
The questions of context are two kinds : historical and literary. Historical context, which will differ from book to book, has to do with several things : the time and culture of the author and his readers, that is geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting. The more important question of historical context has to do with the occasion and purpose of each biblical book and/or of its various parts. Literary context means that words only have meaning in sentences, and for the most part biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences. The most important contextual question are : What’s the point? We must try to trace the author’s train of thought. What is the author saying and why does he or she it right here? And Why?
Content has to do with the meaning of words, the grammatical relationship in sentences, and the choice of the original text where the manuscripts have variant readings. It also includes a number of items mentioned above under “historical context”, for example, the meaning of denarius, Sabbath day’s journey, “high places”, etc.
For the most part, we can do good exegesis with a minimum amount of outside help, provided that help is of the highest quality We need such tools : a good bible dictionary, a good Bible handbook, a good translation, and good commentaries.
THE SECOND TASK : HERMENEUTICS
Although the word “hermeneutics” ordinarily covers the whole field of interpretation, including exegesis, it is also used in the narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts. Here, we will use it exclusively to ask questions about the Bible’s meaning in the “here and now”. But we can not start from this way, because that the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.
The questions of hermeneutics are not at all easy, which is probably why so few books are written on this aspect of our subject. Nor will all agree on how one goes about this task. But this is the crucial area, and believers need to learn to talk and listen one another.