Three years ago, I started a mini-series on key elements of biblical interpretation, and never quite got round to completing it. But there appears to be continued interested in this, so I am reposting the ones I wrote previously, with updates and additions, and will be completing the series.
As I have explored previously, it is impossible to read the Bible without ‘interpreting’ it, whether we realise it or not. To read is to interpret; to translate is to interpret. This is because we live in a different cultural and historical context from those who wrote the Bible, but also because
The Christ event is an act of interpretation.
So if we are going to interpret, how do we do it well? In these posts I want to offer what I think are five essential elements of a responsible interpretive strategy. These are not so much techniques or methods as dimensions to responsible reading. As a bonus, they all begin with the same sound!
The first essential in interpretation is to read the Bible canonically. By this I mean to read whatever particular text we have in front of us in the light of its place in the immediately surrounding texts, within the book of the Bible it occurs, and most broadly within the whole sweep of whole of the Bible.
Our word ‘canon’ comes from the Greek word for ‘reed’, and came to mean the act of measurement for which the reed was used. Applied to the Bible, the term first meant the way in which Scripture functions to ‘measure’ our lives, a standard to live by, but also came to mean the ‘measure’ of what constitutes the books of the Bible. So the ‘formation of the canon’ relates to the process by which Christians discerned what should be included between the covers of the Bible.
If you watch the TV programme Time Team, you will see the archaeologists on the ground exploring the details of a feature. But they only make full sense of it when they pull back, usually in an aerial shot, to see how this detail fits in with the bigger picture. That is what we are doing when we read canonically; we are standing back to see this text in the context of the bigger picture of a passage, a book or the whole of Scripture. To read canonically is to ask the question:
What does this text mean here, in this part of the story of Scripture?
The reason for asking this question is two fold. First, many of the writers of what we now call the Scriptures already had Scriptures of their own. So we find traces of the Ten Commandments in even the earliest prophets (for example, Hosea), and we find ideas and phrases (‘The Lord is gracious and compassionate’, swords and ploughshares, people sitting under their own vine and fig tree) recurring and being reworked. In this sense, reading canonically is about taking seriously the world of the text and of the author. The most obvious case of this is the function of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the canonical context for the writing and reading of the New Testament documents. This means that we cannot to responsible exegesis (reading of the texts) without attending to this dynamic.
But, secondly, the Scriptures we have have been collected by earlier generations of believers in the conviction that, as the testimony to God’s saving actions in history, they belong together and, at some level, share a common voice. This means that we cannot do our biblical theology without taking into account the wider theological picture of which any individual text is but a part.
So asking the question of canon immediately opens up important issues, deepens our understanding and can transform our interpretation. Here are some examples that spring to mind.
Last Sunday I was preaching on 2 Tim 1.7 ‘For God has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.’ Reading this canonically meant seeing where the construction ‘not…but’ comes elsewhere in the letter (it comes again in verse 9) and elsewhere in Paul (Romans 8.15), where power and love are associated with the Spirit in Paul and elsewhere, and the importance and role of power (dunamis) in Jesus’ ministry.
In Luke 4.17, Jesus is in the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61. But Luke’s quotation of the passage misses out an important part. Compare the texts and you will see something significant!
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31–46), the sheep are those who have given aid to ‘one of the least of these my brothers.’ Most contemporary interpretations read the ‘brothers’ as the poor in general, and some have even mounted relief campaigns on the basis of this (I heard it yet again on Thought for the Day this morning!). But Matthew consistently uses the word ‘brother’ (which we might now want to translate ‘brother or sister’) to refer to fellow believers; see Matt 5.23, 5.47, 18.15, 18.21, and especially Matt 12.48-49 and 28.10. Jesus’ brothers are the disciples and anyone else who joins them in following Jesus. We need to read Matthew 25 quite differently! (See my complete post on this question here.)
We need to read the discussion about justification in Romans 3.28 and James 2.14 in the light of each other. There is a long tradition of setting them against one another—but several generations of Christians clearly thought they were both true.
The debates about same-sex unions often founder on the failure to read this issue (and other issues where the church has supposedly ‘changed its mind’) across the whole canon of Scripture. In relation to food laws, all of creation was first declared ‘good’ by God, and the Levitical restrictions were understood by Mark to have been repudiated in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7.19). Slavery was not part of the creation of humanity, who were all equally created in the image of God; God’s central act in the OT (the exodus) was understood as liberation from slavery; and NT teaching such as Gal 3.28 and Eph 6.9, seriously undermine the distinction between slave and master (see the long exposition of Philemon in this regard in the opening of Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God). But the Levitical text prohibiting same-sex unions (Lev 18.22) echoes quite strongly the language of creation in Gen 1.27, and Paul coins a new word in 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.10 as a reference back to the Leviticus text. So there is a consistent canonical connection between these verses—in marked contrast to the other two issues.
(It continues to puzzle me how people can mention slavery, the ministry of women, and same-sex sexual relations in the same breath, as if there is any connection between these issues within the biblical texts. The shape of the debates about these questions within the church have also been quite different.)
If seeing reading canonically, by seeing the big picture and locating individual texts within it, is so important, how can we develop our skills in this area? Here are some suggestions:
- Do it for yourself. Rather than reading the fragmented lectionary morsels, once a week sit down and read through a whole book.
- Make sure you have ‘pew Bibles’ in your church—never put Bible readings on a screen or printed in a news sheet. Extracting readings in this way removes them from their context; by contrast, if people need to pick up a Bible for the reading, they immediately see what comes before and after, and whereabouts the reading is within the whole story of Scripture.
- When preaching, make a habit of commenting on where this reading comes from and how that shapes our understanding of it.
- Preach single sermons on longer passages, perhaps even of two or three chapters, rather than focussing on a few verses.
- You might like to write your own summary of What the Bible’s All About to help you understand the whole story of the Bible.
- I’ve offered a range of other resources in my earlier post Seeing the Big Picture
Happy canonical reading!
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