Recently, my family hosted a game night at our home. As I played cards in the living room, I overheard the group at the kitchen table using words like: “Shire, Rivendell, Helm’s Deep, Mordor, and Legolas.” It seemed to me they were speaking another language. Clearly, I am not part of The Lord of the Rings culture like my family and friends who were playing the Trivial Pursuit game focusing on both the book and the movie.
It reminded me of my first year in Bible college. I discovered a lingo through my classes I had not previously spoken. The letters written by Paul in the Bible became the “Pauline Epistles.” When a professor said the word “Pentateuch,” he was refer- ring to the first five books of the Old Testament. Some other examples of terms I quickly became adept in speaking include:
- Soteriology – the study of salvation
- Eschatology – the study of end times
- Homiletics – the art of preaching
- Hermeneutics – the study of interpretation of the Bible
It’s this last term that, while hard to spell, doesn’t have to be a lofty practice for only clergy and theologians. We are called to help equip those we shepherd in the principles of interpretation. As we lead and disciple others, our approach to God’s Word must be one of humility, curiosity, and a desire to know God so that we can set an example for others to follow. A Christ-follower’s methods of interpreting the Bible greatly influence his or her ability to understand and apply God’s Word appropriately. Hermeneutics have great value so we don’t become Scripture bullies who wield God’s Word like a weapon to fight others rather than our common enemies of sin, Satan, and our pride.
As we lead and disciple others, our approach to God’s Word must be one of humility, curiosity, and a desire to know God so that we can set an example for others to follow.
Throughout Scripture we find warnings against false teaching. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan attempted to twist God’s promises to distort their meaning. So we must learn and teach good principles of interpretation. 2 Timothy 2:15 suggests we should learn to handle God’s Word. “Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth (NLT).” This verse implies that there is a wrong way to handle God’s Word. Paul instructs Timothy about how important it is to correctly explain the Bible to others. As we fulfill the great commission to make disciples, we should be clear about some principles to teach them as they learn to study and share God’s Word. After referring to some great books, I asked several people I respect about their best hermeneutic practices.
The following are the top three principles I want to be careful to teach my children as well as those I am seeking to disciple.
1. Consider each verse in its context.
In this world of social media, people often isolate verses without considering the rest of the chapter and book that goes before and after that verse. In college, someone made a poster for our dorm that had pictures of male models and this verse: “Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me.” (Psalm 56:1a NIV) Although this was a joke, it illustrates how we can twist Scripture because this Psalm was written by King David when Saul’s men chased him relentlessly, and he was forced to hide out in caves. Do you see how it was taken out of context to skew its original intent?
When we know something about the author, the original audience, the historical backdrop, and the cultural norms, it helps us unwrap the underlying truth. We then take the correctly interpreted principle given from God and then reapply it in our own cultural context. Here are some good questions we can share with those who are seeking to get to know God through His Word:
- How did the author intend this to be understood and why?
- Why does God include and preserve this?
- What biblical principle is found here?
- How does this fit in with the whole of Scripture?
- What application does this truth have in our modern culture?
These questions will help ascertain context. When I asked the five people I most respect about important interpretation principles when reading Scripture, all five included the word “context” in their top two. Context helps us understand God’s heart. The Bible contains timeless truths, but sometimes our modern mindset can trip us up when reading ancient texts. “We need to become familiar with the argument the writer was making or the flow of the message he was conveying,” says Dale McCleskey, an editor at Lifeway.
For example, the book of Ephesians ends with Paul’s challenge to wear the full armor of God. As we understand Paul’s circumstances while writing from a Ro- man prison to a church at Ephesus struggling with many attacks internally and externally, it gives us greater context for his ending his letter explaining God’s protective gear. In order to correctly interpret God’s Word so that we can fight against Satan in battle, we need to begin to ask questions about the cultural contexts that lead us to hear God’s redemptive voice.
2. Let the text speak.
We must be careful not to read our own ideas into it. As believers we guard against starting with our minds made up and then going to the Bible to support what we have already concluded. That’s called proof texting. If we aren’t careful, we can twist the Bible to say anything we want it to say when we’re looking to prove a point. We must lay aside our baggage when we open God’s Word. Our childhood religious traditions, preconceived notions, and Americanized thoughts must all take a backseat to the clearest reading of the text.
While some passages may contain poetry, allegory, or metaphors, we only implore that interpretation when the text itself does. By this I mean, we know when Jesus said, “I am the gate,” it’s obvious He was speaking of a spiritual gate, not a literal one. Other times we shouldn’t read too much into a straightforward passage unless it’s clear that the author is imploring the use of literary allegory, figures of speech, or some other technique. We shouldn’t read into the text what we want it to say; instead we should look for God’s heart and ask His Spirit to give us wisdom in discerning His message.
Once we’ve asked the questions from our first principle about the context, we then let God’s Word speak for itself without adding to, changing, or making something up so it makes more sense in our finite brain. We don’t need to humanize miracles or add details from the time period that sound good but couldn’t be known. In other words, does an interpretation pass the smell test?
If an idea seems unrealistic, chances are we aren’t letting the text speak for itself. We are adding human ideas to try to help God out. We need to check our baggage at the door (or the cover I guess) and dig in curiously while simply letting the very words of our God speak to our hearts and minds. Moses sums it up in Deuteronomy 4:2 pretty well when he says, “Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you (NLT).”
3. Don’t think you have to have all the answers, but keep asking questions.
My Bible’s margins are filled with question marks. I often struggle to understand why God said things in His Word. When I asked why the book of Jeremiah was so disorganized, I found in my reading that day Ecclesiastes 7:13, “Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked?” When I am puzzled about prophecies I don’t understand in Revelation, or wonder what it means that women are saved through child-bearing, I also find 1 Corinthians 13:12 confirming that our current understanding is incomplete. “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely (NLT).”
Although our picture isn’t complete, we need to ask good questions and seek answers diligently. We can introduce new students of God’s Word to consider consulting commentaries from authors with varying viewpoints or ask a pastor or spiritual mentor to help them understand a passage of Scripture that seems confusing. In Acts 17:11 the people of Berea heard the message of the gospel and: “They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth (NLT).”
We could implore the people we shepherd to do a little more searching, digging, and asking questions. As we seek to learn the meaning of a passage from the Bible that seems unclear, we must also be okay with some measure of ambiguity. Trying to tack everything down can lead us to dangerous places where we hold all the right answers on every verse of the Bible. Some things are clear and we never back down (the gospel), other grey areas we hold loosely realizing that we see in a mirror dimly right now (worship styles, men and women’s’ roles, end times, etc.) If we aren’t careful, we might find ourselves trying to do what Solomon warned us about in Ecclesiastes – trying to straighten God out when He doesn’t need us to. Something inside us often wants to force everything into black and white categories. We must learn to live with leaving a few things in the grey areas when Scripture does.
As we seek to equip the body of Christ and as we open our own Bibles, let’s remember to consider context, let the text speak, and keep asking questions that lead us into deep relationship with the Author of the living Word. — by Melissa Spoelstra
Editor’s Note: A popular women’s conference speaker and Bible teacher, Melissa Spoelstra is the author of Jeremiah: Daring to Hope in an Unstable World (Abingdon Press, 2014). Her husband, Sean, is pastor of Encounter Church, a Grace Brethren congregation in Dublin, Ohio, where they live with their four children.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of GraceConnect. If you’d like to receive the magazine, mailed directly to your home at no charge, click here.