Last Sunday I preached at Christchurch, Turnham Green in Chiswick, London, on How to Interpret the Bible—except that I didn’t! Instead, I recorded a video for them which they played in their live-streamed service.
The shape of my talk followed the Grove booklet that I wrote a few years ago. I begin with a prior question: do we need to interpret the Bible, rather than just reading it? We evidently do, since different people disagree on what the Bible means, so are engaging in a process of interpretation. And Jesus’ difference with his opponents, such as the Pharisees, was not on whether we should obey the Scriptures, but what these Scripture meant—in other words, his disagreement was precisely on the question of interpretation!
I then explore four key principles to enable us to read well—and along the way address some common misunderstandings about some well-known passages.
The first is to ask: what kind of writing is this? This is a question that springs from the fact that Scripture comes to use as God’s word in human words, and when we read and write things, recognising the kind, or genre, of writing, is something that we do all the time, quite naturally, often without even realising it. Differing kinds of writing will need to be interpreted in different ways; we do not read poems in the same way that we read a car maintenance manual! And simply recognising this can help with some common problems in reading. It is striking that, where we find the parables of Jesus quite straightforward, and apocalyptic rather baffling, Jesus’ disciples were the other way around.
The second question to ask is: what is the context of this text? As someone once said, ‘The past is another country; they do things differently there.’ When we open our Bibles, we are going on a cross-cultural adventure, and we seek to hear what God is saying to us through what someone said, in the first instance, to another audience. This is recognising that God has revealed himself to particular people in a particular context in the past—so we need to think about who they were, and what this writing meant to them.
The third question to ask is: what is the content—what does this text actually say? It is amazing how easy it is to read a text, and read what we think it says, or what we want it to say, or what someone tells us it says, rather than what it actually says! This is the well-known phenomenon of ‘confirmation bias.’ In our busy world, full of words, the danger is that we rush by, when we need to slow down, and patiently attend to what Scripture is actually saying to us. This reflects the fact that God’s word to us is often surprising, and causes us to think again and afresh.
Finally, the fourth question is: where is this in the canon of Scripture? The Bible was written over a long period of time, and later writers very often draw on earlier writings to make their point. This is especially so for the writers of the New Testament, for whom Jesus was the fulfilment of all God had promised in their (‘Old Testament’) Scriptures. So they describe Jesus, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus, using language from the Old Testament—and others might re-use the ideas we find in different places within the New Testament.
When we ask these four questions, not only do some heated differences get quite quickly resolved, but the Scriptures also come alive to us—and speak powerfully into our lives—in ways that they had not previously.
You can buy the Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible online here.
I hope you enjoy the video!