For quite some time now, I’ve been following the war of words among various people who have been writing letters to the editor in this newspaper. One person says, “The Bible says this . . . .” Another says, “No, the Bible says this . . . .” A third says, “You’re both wrong, the Bible says this . . . .” I’m reminded of the individual who once told me, “There’s no point in making an argument from the Bible; you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to.”
Some people get around this difficulty by saying: “I take the Bible literally. None of that interpretation stuff for me. God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” This sounds great but, of course, no one really takes the Bible literally. For example, the psalmist writes, “[God] will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge…” (Psalm 91:4). Now, unless you picture God as a giant ostrich you probably don’t take this verse literally. Another example is when Jesus says: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8) I suspect that if Christians took this verse literally there would be a lot more one-handed and one-footed people in our churches.
No, the point is not to take the Bible literally; the point is to interpret the Bible naturally. What do I mean by naturally? To interpret the Bible naturally means that one interprets it in the way that its original authors intended. For example, when one interprets the Bible naturally one interprets narrative as narrative, poetry as poetry, wisdom literature as wisdom literature, law as law, prophecy as prophecy, history as history, and apocalyptic writing as apocalyptic writing. Scholars refer to these different types of literature as genres. And every genre of literature has different rules of interpretation. Sincere Christians get themselves into all kinds of problems and twist their theology into pretzel shapes because they fail to understand the different genres found in the Bible. When one tries to take poetry as literal truth or interpret apocalyptic literature as historical narrative one will find oneself in all kinds of difficulties. The problem is not with the Bible; it’s with the person trying to interpret the Bible in a way it was never intended to be interpreted.
Another example of reading the Bible naturally is to understand the principle of context. Most of us know from personal experience how frustrating it is to have something we’ve said taken “out of context.” Indeed, how often do you hear politicians complain that the media took their words out of context. Now, in the case of a politician, this complaint may simply be an attempt to cover up an ill-considered remark. Be that as it may, the principle remains valid. It is vital that students of the Scriptures study the Bible “in context”—that is, in its historical, literary, cultural, and grammatical contexts. When we fail to do this we’ll find ourselves making all kinds of mistakes in our interpretation of Scripture and, in the worst cases, falling into destructive heresies.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “Can’t I just read the Bible devotionally and let God speak to me?” Certainly you can! I do that myself. There’s nothing wrong with simply reading the Scriptures and letting God speak to us. But I would suggest that God also speaks to us when we devote ourselves to the study of Scripture—when we mine down into the depths of God’s Word and let God’s Spirit speak to us in the blood, sweat, and tears of intense study. I believe that God honours such hard work and rewards those who take His word seriously enough to devote the time and effort required to plunge its depths.
Let me encourage those of you wanting to move from simply reading the Bible to studying it to start with a great, little book entitled, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand introduction to the discipline of biblical interpretation. There’s no question that studying the Bible is hard work. But there’s also no question that God rewards our efforts at understanding His Word a hundredfold. Happy digging!