The Bible and Meaning: Part I

Before debates on theology, doctrine, and points of belief, and well before the application of these ideas to life is the matter of Biblical interpretation.  When you read your Bible how do you know you have arrived at the meaning of the passage you have read? Does God determine the meaning of a particular passage? The author? The reader?  Is the meaning of a passage conditioned by the cultural setting of the author or reader? Or is it controlled by the current situation of the reader?  What is the role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical interpretation?  And how can so many people arrive at so many different interpretations?  What is meaning anyway?  What about the more mysterious experiences readers have when they engage the Bible? These are hard questions to answer.

If you study the Bible seriously I hope you have taken some time to think about how you arrive at what you think the Bible is saying.  The questions above commonly fall under the area of study called hermeneutics.  Broadly hermeneutics studies how meaning is arrived at as information is considered.  But more focused, Biblical hermeneutics deals with how we arrive at meaning as we read and think about the text of the Bible.

Biblical hermeneutics has a long history.  As long as scripture has existed various philosophies of interpretation as well as interpretive methodologies have existed.  The starting place of hermeneutics is to realize that you have a hermeneutic.  All readers of the Bible have a framework through which they filter and refine Biblical passages to arrive at the meaning of a text.  Hermeneutics starts with trying to understand your own methods of Biblical interpretation and then moves to an evaluation of them. The goal is to build an understanding of interpretation and to continually refine it.  Below, I would like to give a few guideposts for interpreting the Bible that I believe help the reader to arrive at the meaning of the text.  I have listed these in no particular order, though number one does take priority.

1. The Bible as the Revelation of God – The concept of the Bible being the revelation of God is the most important hermeneutical concept and decision an interpreter must wrestle with.  To think of the Bible as revelation means that God has spoken to us from His realm into ours, in the format of human language, in words, and those words have meaning and purpose (think 2 Timothy 3:16).  In fact, it is this point that really separates ‘conservative’ Biblical scholars from ‘liberal’ scholars.  I use those terms loosely because it seems that everybody defines ‘liberal’ as everyone to the left of their position and ‘conservative’ as everybody to right.  Anthony Thiselton says in Hermeneutics: An Introduction, “ ‘liberals’ usually begin with human experiences while conservatives seek to begin with revelation” (263).  And I believe He is right.  A decision has to be made whether we will read the Bible as revelation from God or not.  If the Bible is not revelation from God then the text is ultimately relegated to whatever it means to us in the context of our experiences.  If the Bible is read as the revelation of God, which I think the Bible itself witnesses too and requires as a presupposition to its reading, then the Bible realizes its authority in the reader’s life that it claims to have.  If we deny that the Bible is the revelation of God then the Bible is not longer helpful, in fact it becomes harmful, since the Bible claims to be the very Word of God.  I have grossly oversimplified the arguments here on this concept, but the point is to ask you as a reader of the Bible if you read it as the revelation of God or not?

2. The Biblical Text – Yes, the Bible was written in human language and the words used have meaning.  It is the burden of the Biblical interpreter to try their best to understand all the linguistic nuances of the Bible.  Whatever the reader thinks the Bible says, it must be checked against the actual words in the Bible.  If any given meaning cannot be found within the linguistic constructions of the Biblical text, great caution should be exercised.  Don’t hear me wrong, I am not advocating for a literal interpretation of the Bible, though sometimes that is appropriate.  When studying the Bible we must enter the Biblical world and understand the meaning of the words as the author intended.  We must understand when the author is using any particular literary device: metaphor, hyperbole, simile, contrast, sarcasm, etc within a particular literary genre: history, poetry, narrative, etc.  We must also study the actual words used and their meaning in the context of each passage and age in which the text was written.  This is no easy task and could lead to great despair at ever approximating any legitimate meaning. However, all of these areas I am listing have a cumulative effect; they work together to bring about meaning.

3. Placing the Bible in the Context of History – Another important key to unlocking the Bible’s meaning is placing the Bible in the context of history.  Again, we could go lots of places with this concept, and scholars have, but at its root this ideal is fairly simple.  If we believe the Bible is a revelation from God, it was revealed to a certain people, in a certain place, at a certain time, in particular situations.  Though the Bible claims to speak to people of all time and in every situation, the more we can know and understand the original context of God’s revelation the closer we can get to the meaning of a particular passage.  The historical context becomes a fence to keep us from making the Bible mean whatever we want.  Given the spatio-temporal reality of the original revelation there must have been a correlating meaning.  We must keep in mind that God wanted to say something specific to a particular people though He had all His people in mind.  Once we get at the historical meaning then we can begin to apply the meaning to other times and places.  Some scholars at this point say that the text only has meaning for the original receivers of Biblical revelation, but this can easily be refuted with the many, many, Biblical passages that urge the people of God to teach everything revealed to them to their children thereby passing on truth from one generation to another.  Each generation is motivated to love God in similar ways to the previous generation.  We consider the original historical setting of a given Biblical passage to help us get at God’s intended meaning and then we make a move to extrapolate that meaning and apply it to our current situation.

4. The Holy Spirit as Guide – The role of the Holy Spirit is an oft-neglected part of Biblical interpretation.  We cannot approach the Bible with just a scientific empirical type of study.  Biblical Study is primarily an act of devotion and communion with God.  There is something mysterious to the way we arrive at meaning in the Bible.  While more liberal scholarship divorced the Bible from God’s hand in authorship and placed the mystery in the mind of the reader, they did a decent job of exploring many of the more intangible aspects of interpretation.  Liberal scholars are unwilling to sit under the authority of the Bible, preferring their own minds to sit in authority over the Bible instead, but they did see that there is a special interaction between our life experiences and how the Bible speaks to us.  What they missed was a living God who speaks by the Holy Spirit through words on a page.  John 16:13-15 and1 Corinthians 2:9-13 speak to this reality.  It is the Holy Spirit that is able to illuminate the words on the page and communicate the meaning of a text to our hearts if we will let Him.

5. The Church – This point of control may surprise you if you have a low view of the church, but part of the role of the community of God’s people is to help you interpret the Bible well.  Deuteronomy 29:29 talks about the law being given to “us and to our children forever.”  God’s Word is given to His community, His people.  It is in His community that the meaning of the Bible is sought and protected.  ‘What a passage means to me’ needs to be checked with ‘what is has meant and does mean to us.’  As evangelicals we often discount long-standing tradition. However, looking at the history of interpretation of any particular passage can provide great fruit.  We have to remember that there have been other Christians that have been interpreting the Bible for thousands of years.  We not only have our particular present day church community to interpret the Bible with but we have the wider church that has spanned the ages.  We see the principal of communal interpretation in the law where prophets are watched by the community of believers to see if their prophetic utterances come true.  Paul in Galatians 1:6-10 is urging the Galatians to make sure whatever teaching they hear accords with the body of teaching they have already received as a community.  1 Corinthians 14:29 explores the same idea for prophecy made in the church.  Prophecy in the church is weighed by those listening to see if it accords with revealed truth as found in the Word of God.  The church is an integral part of Biblical interpretation.

A Note on Application: I believe it is important to distinguish between meaning and application.  Meaning is the element of truth being proclaimed by the Scriptures such as, ‘Jesus is God.’  Application is then what you do with the element of truth, or how this truth should affect your life.  If ‘Jesus is God’ then I should live my life in ways that reflect I believe that truth.  These aspects of life response to Biblical truth are application and there are an infinite number of applications.  In fact Augustine in Confessions talks about his awe for the Scriptures in this regard, that they could speak to so many different people in so many different ways.  But, even our application should find a strong mooring to the interpretive guideposts above.

If you have never thought about how you arrive at meaning while you are reading your Bible I highly encourage you to take a few minutes and think about it.  A really good starting place is a book by one of my former professors at Southern Seminary, Robert Plummer and Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. I hope I have sparked an interest in Biblical hermeneutics and that you found my guideposts above to be helpful.

*The image above was used in accordance with the licensing agreements of WikiCommons and in no way reflects the views of the artist that produced the image.
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