Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
— 2 Timothy 3.16,17 (The Message)
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. — Hebrews 4.12 (English Standard Version)
For most Christians of evangelical ilk, these passages serve as a substantive foundation for their reading and engagement of the Bible. That the Bible is important would never be a disputed point among Christians. In fact, it seems to me that the last possible point of commonality for all 25000 worldwide Christian denominations (give or take a few thousand) is this: there is a Bible and Jesus is mentioned somewhere in it. Beyond that, everything is up-for-grabs, but the fact that the Bible is a common source point for all of us means that how we read the Bible is massively important.
The way in which one reads and subsequently interprets the Bible is called a hermeneutic. The interpretation part is what makes a hermeneutic a hermeneutic. It is a method of understanding the way in which one interacts with the words on the page. In truth, all ancient texts call for a hermeneutic of some kind or other, but Christians have co-opted the word for our own distinct purposes.
Were I to give a 21st century American adult with a high school diploma and an eighth grade reading level a copy of a USA Today article about ISIL, ask her to read it, and then ask her to share what the article said, there is a high level of trust in her response. English is her first language, she is educated, she comes from the cultural viewpoint of the author. If I were to issue the same test to a different adult with the same heritage and educational background, chances are their reports would be very similar.
However, if I were to ask them both what the author meant, what the intent of the author was, or whether they understood what the author was trying to say, suddenly things become not-so-solid. We have now moved from observing and reporting (journalism) to interpretation and understanding (hermeneutic). The more ancient, linguistically distant, and culturally removed we are from the text, the more the employed hermeneutic matters.
As Christians, we approach what we believe is not-just-any-text from not-just-any-perspective. We believe the Bible was inspired by God, given to humans as divine revelation from God. In particular, we believe the words of God are alive, that their Author loves us, that He has and is communicating with us, and that how we receive and understand those words is one of the most important things about us. Therefore, because of this incredible relationship with this incredible God who communicates with His children — even to the point of becoming one of them (Jesus, the Word of God) and dying on the cross for them — how we read and interpret the Bible is one of the most important things about how we got here, who we are and where we are going. Given this level of importance and such, evangelicalism has formed a somewhat common hermeneutic consisting of three parts. A lot of Christians call this inductive Bible study.
Observation: what does the text say?
Interpretation: what does the text mean?
Application: how should I apply the text to my life?
Inductive Bible study holds three other components near and dear to its heart particularly in its step of observation.
Grammar: the text is formed with language. Allowing the rules of that language to dictate how you read the text is important.
History: the text was written by a specific person to specific person or people, in a specific historical setting. Noting all of that is important.
Context: you can understand the specific words in a text by looking at the words around them. The text is defined by its own linguistic setting.
That, my friends, is a basic and thoroughly boring account of evangelical study of the Bible. It is a good starting point.
My contention is this: it does not go nearly deep enough.
In my opinion, the single greatest detriment to the spiritual growth and health of the American Church is the lack of general Bible knowledge on the part of Christian adults, especially parents. I believe teaching Christians that inductive Bible study is all you need for learning the Bible has birthed generations of Christians who have never moved from milk to meat in their consumption of God’s Word. They get bored with it, it becomes laborious, it’s communicated dryly, and they are taught to treat it like an other book or article. It’s criminal!
Inductive Bible study is fine, it’s a beginning, but this is a text that is alive and that changes people. We are meant to have a relationship with this word from God. We do not worship ink on a page, I understand that, but we do worship the God who takes that word and enlivens it in our hearts, minds and spirits. God moved, men wrote, the Bible was formed and we are changed by receiving it. But for goodness sake, we have got to stop treating it like a science project and start actually engaging this living word from our living God through it.
It is for these reasons that I offer four components of what I submit are a better hermeneutic:
Plain: Let the text say what the text wants to say. Don’t be afraid of receiving it the way it wants to give itself to you. Yes, you should teach the five year olds in your church story of David and Bathsheba. You should wrestle with Paul’s words to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The text says what it means and means what it says, don’t over-think it, don’t make it say what you want it to say and don’t skip parts. If you don’t understand something you read, then read it again. Let it stand on its own and plainly speak its life-giving words to you.
Spirit: The Bible is a spiritual book. It is understood spiritually. It is neither a history nor science text, and for that matter, it’s actually not a theology text either. At the core, the Bible is the story of God and His redemptive presence by His Son and His Spirit among His people, ever working His greater story. Each and every page points to Jesus, but without a spiritual understanding of the book, you will miss it. Ever notice that Peter took the Old Testament out of context on Pentecost? Ever see the same thing from James at the Jerusalem Council? Did a prophecy made to Israel ever speak comfort, conviction or strength to your heart? Do you need to be David to understand his rage against his enemies? All of these things happen spiritually, enlivened by the Spirit of God moving upon you as you read. When you read and interpret the Scriptures, understand that they work together in mystical ways to engage you and speak to you. Not everything is about systematization.
Love: Speaking of systematization, I swear systematic theology is killing us. The Bible was never meant to be systematized. Old Testament rabbinical students didn’t/don’t systematize the Torah. They memorize it. Systematic theology gives us neat little packages of understanding through basic thematic overviews of the text that says this is who God is, who Jesus is, what salvation is, what the end times are, etc. Systematic theology exists to give a certain perspectival understanding of the key topic at hand from the vantage point of the theologian offering said systematic theology, which is probably just a repeat of the systematic theology he/she learned. Thing is, these systematic theological themes are divorced from the heart of God. Faith is in the heart, not the mind. Any theology that does not get to your heart is a theology that is dead, and in my experience, that’s exactly what systematic theology is. It’s not about the way it’s presented — I’ve had amazing teachers make systematic theology very alive and exciting — but it was not transformational because it does not draw you to God’s heart. God’s heart is love. The over-riding theme of the Bible is the tenacious, conquering love of God for His people, and we should read and receive the Scriptures with a theology of love, not system. The goal is not to understand or know (those are just rest stops on the journey). The goal is wonder.
Whole: The Bible is a book made up of books. Never would you sit down with any other book, read one page, and then put the book down. How can you get the flow of the story of Judges if it takes you a month to read it? Judges is an incredible story. War, intrigue, sex, dashing men, brave women, beauty, grace, adventure — all themes of this book that would take about an hour to read. Most folks will read another book or magazine for an hour, why not the Bible? What’s even more amazing is when you read Judges and then read Revelation and see some of the same phraseology and pictures paralleled between the two books. It’s a book. Read it!
So, those are my suggested expansions toward a better hermeneutic.
Milk to meat, friends…milk to meat. Stop drinking and start chewing.