How do we interpret the Bible well?


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!


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14 thoughts on “How do we interpret the Bible well?”

  1. Thankyou Ian, we’ve just done a series on ‘The Very Good Book’, including how to read and interpret it well, so this video is a great extra resource for people.

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      • We put it together ourselves. Sermon topics were:
        1. How the Bible reveals God to us
        2. How the bible changes lives and nations
        3. How to engage with the Bible
        4. How the Bible blesses us
        5. How to apply the Bible 2000 years after it was written
        6. How to handle the difficult bits of the Bible
        For Lent we’re now preaching through the scriptures which have most inspired and spoken to us. I’m doing Mark 1:29-39 tomorrow.

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  2. After going through several life crises, and a massive crises of faith, I began reevaluating everything I thought I knew. That landed me in Bible School. Not only am I closer to YHWH and His Word, but, I now see how many odd ideas I had that were man’s tradition. I wish chuches taught lay people exegesis. I plan to when I’m done.

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    • That’s great to hear. I know it is a risk to say ‘Well, it is complicated…’ but I don’t think we do people any favours by pretending that the issues in interpretation are not there…

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  3. Well, here is one biblical interpetation that may not resonate well with you, Ian. Howeverer, as Professor of Christian Morals at the prestigious University of Harvard (with which place I believe you yourself have had some connection?), The Revd. Peter Moles, in his recent address at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, on the subject of “What would Jesus say about Gay/Straight Marriage if here were here today”, had this to say (which I guess would challenge your interpretation) :-

    https://youtu.be/2sKaOszs3kw

    Reply
    • It doesn’t resonate well because it abandons any actual careful reading of the NT, and instead simply projects his own assumptions onto the text—in other words, he fails to do just the things I commend here.

      That kind of reader-centred approach to the text as a plastic container of modern views is the reason why we are in the mess we are.

      Jesus was Torah observant, who in many cases strengthened the claims of the law, especially on sexual ethics, and appealed to the creation principle of male and female as the basis of our thinking about marriage. The Professor appears to ignore all that…for some reason…

      Reply
  4. Ian: “You can never separate questions about the authority of the Bible from questions about interpretation of the Bible.”

    I think that is key: “In what way is the Bible authoritative?”

    You are an excellent communicator, and you present 4 important principles. I listened to them, and the examples you offered. Great!

    But I think there is an elephant in the room, and that is: “In what way should I regard these words as authoritative?” which in a way harks back to your ‘context’ point, but in fact is a vital question in its own right.

    What is the mechanism of inspiration by which God may impart insight, revelation, understanding, opening of heart, as a person reads from the Bible?

    The way the Holy Spirit operates as we read and interpret and respond to Bible text – is it authoritative in the sense that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and inspired word for word, as if God had emailed the text?

    Or is it religious communities over many generations, fallible humans like ourselves “trying to make sense of encounters with God” within the limitations of their times, their contexts, their knowledge, and maybe even their prejudices, potentially sometimes getting things wrong, but still exercising sincerity and faith in the context of actual faith encounters with God?

    So how much *authority* should we endow Scripture with, and of what kind?

    Are the words – all Scripture as the Bible itself asserts – ‘inspired’ in and of themselves?

    Or are the scriptures in the Bible a conduit for ‘inspiration’, a means of ‘inspiration’, that operates as we, in turn, open to God and encounter God, in our own times and culture and knowledge, with that opening to encounter somehow triggered by the earlier encounters and openings of the Bible authors?

    Is the Bible authority actually in its power to spark our own opening up to God and divine revelation? Is the Bible fundamentally a conduit for ongoing revelation… ‘alive and active’ in the way it sparks our own opening up to God?

    I’m not trying to be confrontational. I love your love of God – it is transparent and beautiful. But I think you know, and I know, that in the Church of England today we are seeing a fundamental divergence of views on interpretation… a kind of paradigm shift… and I suggest it boils down less to the 4 more detailed principles you outline (all of which are useful) but to a shift in assumptions about how the Bible is authoritative (and the extent to which it is) that has been accentuated in recent centuries.

    Then we are faced with the amazing challenge of “how we love one another” when we approach the Bible with different conscientious views on the nature of its authority and how that works.

    A lot of grace, love and maturity is necessary in that interface between divergent starting paradigms and consciences. I see that grace in you. I am at present appreciating a discourse full of grace with a minister from your church tradition and diocese, and I believe we have both found it so helpful. Sometimes correspondents can be abrasive and rude, but actually as Christians we face a very real challenge over differing conscientious assumptions about biblical interpretation, the challenge being: to pray, seek grace, listen, be honest, but still maintain love for each other – not because of uniformity of conscience, but because we are one in Christ and children of God.

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    • Dear Susannah, As I perceive this to be a heartfelt series of questions, may I be so bold as to make to make a few brief observations.
      Fundamentally, what we believe at heart is either rooted in a divinity or within ourselves. Either we submit to the divine will or our epistemology is based upon our own perceptions. Otherwise, from the perspective of Christian truth we are attempting to live in both “worlds” at the same time; contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ that we must seek first the kingdom and his righteousness. In other words, His will and purposes must be uppermost in our hearts and minds.

      Which brings me (at the risk of gross oversimplification) to the role of the bible: God has made himself known in three basic ways : creation, history and revelatory truth. Scripture embraces the latter two. In the words of Article 20 of the Anglican 39 articles, The bible is “God’s Word written”. It is not only “inspired” ( God-given. God-breathed [2 Timothy £:16]), it is also imbedded in the historical process. Consequently both testaments bear witness from “cover to cover” and through human agency to the continuous saving, restorative activity of the Godhead .
      I appreciate that this does not manifestly answer many of the issues you have posed. However, I would simply leave you with two related questions:
      (1) If there were no bible, what sort of system of belief would we have? ( Would Christianity survive?)
      (2) If we are of the outlook that only certain parts of scripture are in effect the Word of God, then by what criteria do we judge that other parts are not?
      Every good wish!

      Reply
      • Colin,

        Thank you. I am grateful to you for your courtesy and all the time you took to set these thoughts out for me. I am just cooking at the moment but I hope in due course to reply in some way. I really appreciate your helpful and decent response.

        Susannah

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      • Sorry for the delay, Colin. Last evening of my holiday week, and I will finally try to address your post.

        In terms of what I believe at heart, and whether that is God-inspired or just “rooted in myself”… well it’s a really challenging point, isn’t it?

        My own faith has been like a journey, with various stages, and I think God has been with me on that journey, although I didn’t really realise it all at the time. Yes, I can confirm, there were a lot of ‘perceptions’… I think we’re created to be receptive, and I don’t think that’s all bookwork, and I think in some Christian circles ‘feelings’ are seen as dangerous and possibly undervalued. We need both feelings and thought. Often the feelings (and intimations from God) don’t come ‘all worked out’ or ‘all understood’ – there is a numinous God operating, and ‘via negativa’ and that ‘cloud of unknowing’ through which faith and trust grow where words and our own controlling minds trail off. Of course, that will be seen by many as dangerous, but I believe it’s the way it is.

        My own faith grew through multiple ‘openings’, not all understood at the time. As a small child, first of all, and very important to who I was and am, there was ‘wonder’… almost like a rhapsody and joy in the natural world… crowds of fresh-smelling daffodils… the sea!… the reclusive woods and moss and leaves and trees… misty autumn… the breeze cutting across a cornfield… moments of stillness and presence at dusk.

        From age 11 to 17 I was a chorister, and although my parents didn’t go to church, those years gave me sense of church season, and cycle of the church year, and exposure to the scriptures, and the psalms… no-one explained the gospel to me, but looking back now, I regard that week-in-week-out encounter with the Bible, the collects, prayer, the way music opens your emotions, and also sense of wonder and mystery in the dark midwinter, and evensong, and carols – Britten’s Ceremony of Carols felt so mysterious and speaking of something or someone who from childhood wonder I recognised, dark beauty, somehow like an old familiar and benevolent presence my mind “within myself” to use your words. Yet though I knew Jesus was referenced in the church services, I didn’t know Jesus.

        My relationship with a kind of mystery deepened in the wild places… as I gave myself to mountaineering for a decade… experience amazing aliveness and tragic death… but what drove me was this sense of wonder, majesty, wonder, beauty, and flow. It was as if I heard and felt comforted by the sweet, sad song of the hills. My sense of something deeper had grown, almost into a love affair.

        Then an unexpected sequence of events happened, unplanned, not worked out. They just happened to me. I was living in the Scottish Highlands, and renting a cottage from a Christian woman. There was something about this woman, some light I saw in her, something she had, and unbeknown to me she belonged to a charismatic house church fellowship, based at a farmhouse. I had never had the gospel explained to me – I tended to see God as a ‘force’ in nature – but deep in the autumn, at my remote cottage, I started reading John’s Gospel. One line kept getting to me – ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overwhelmed it’ – and I underlined it. The lady has visited once or twice to check things were alright, and I think she saw that bible open at that verse on the table – and unbeknown to me, she and that fellowship started to pray for me.

        Then events happened quickly. Deep in the night, one of the elders of this fellowship found himself (as I later found out) carried away in prayer in tongues. He didn’t know what he was praying about, but he hadn’t experienced such an urgent compulsion to pray, and he just found he was praying on and on… in faith I guess you might say.

        At the same time, I was getting drunk. I’d fallen in with some guys who were heavily into drink and drugs. And that night, when I finally said I wanted to go home, one of them said he would drive me, although he was in no condition to drive, and I knew that. I was so irresponsible. Through the dark night (and it was a night of thick mist coming in from the sea) he drove down tiny narrow lanes across the edge of empty moorland, and the car started to swerve, one side of road to the other. Then next moment, he was off the road, and the car lights flashing, the care was rolling over and over into a river. Then total darkness. The car was upside down, and flooding with water, and at that moment I just thought, almost calmly, so this is my time to die. But something – and it felt like some kind of guidance or angel – made me reach through a gaping hole (which was the undercarriage of the written off car) which was above my head (as the car was upside down). I have no idea how I saw that gap, or how I got out, but I waded and climbed a bank, soaked, shaken, but without a scratch.

        The driver had been thrown through the front window of the car and had ended up in a bush. He was injured. It was totally dark, and the mist was so thick that we walked half a mile before deciding we’d gone the wrong way, then turning round and walking the other way until I got to the cottage I was renting from the Christian lady. We went inside, and at that point the other guy started cursing and vomiting all over the carpet. I phoned for an ambulance, and he was driven to hospital, though it turned out his injuries weren’t serious. Then I fell into a sleep, feeling ashamed and very shaken.

        Next day I went to my auntie’s house about 4 miles away, at lunchtime. And I felt emotional. I went outside and got an axe and started chopping big logs for her fire. And for the first time in my adult life, I cried and cried. I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed about the vomit in the Christian lady’s cottage. But more than that, I felt ashamed about a whole sequence of life decisions, which I regretted. I just chopped and chopped the wood.

        Then I went inside, and asked my aunt if I could lie down, and she let me use one of her living rooms, and I drew the curtains closed, lay on a chair, and fell asleep. Please understand, at that moment in time, I still did not understand God as anything more than ‘maybe a force’, nor did I understand the details of becoming a Christian (nobody had ever explained it to me), except I knew I was baptised as a baby. But like I say, this wasn’t about me making a calculated decision. It was something that just seemed to happen to me. I woke to find it was now dark outside, but in the room, which ought to be dark, there was a light I can’t explain, not a physical light as far as I can understand, but the overwhelming sense of light coming from across the room. And He was there. I couldn’t see him. But I knew it was Him. For the first time in my life, I knew God as a person, not a force, and I also knew straight off that that person was Jesus and that I was safe. Somehow, in those moments, everything had changed. It wasn’t a question of trying to decide if I wanted to be a Christian. It was too overwhelming for that. He was there.

        That very evening (for I’d been asleep for hours) I found out the phone number of the minister of this charismatic fellowship) and highly embarrassed I told him “I think I’ve just become a Christian” and he arranged to see me next day, and talked me through the gospel, and after that I was cared for in that fellowship, where tongues and interpretations and prophecy were just normal worship life, but where the most amazing thing in a service was the way the minister could preach in such a way that we knew Jesus there, with us.

        My father was taken ill with what turned out to be terminal cancer. So I travelled south to be close to him, and joined a church where he lived, which was an evangelical Anglican church.

        My point in telling you all this, is that I think faith develops in a person in a combination of ways, all by the grace of God, some worked out and understood by study of the scriptures, some experienced through feelings and the way feelings can open up the mind’s understanding, where maybe it’s about being receptive to God by… being receptive. I think God prepared me for that born again event.

        I’ll conclude, because my holidays are coming to an end, and this is a long post: that salvation by faith and grace was a beginning, not an end. God keeps on calling us, calling to us to open up, to grow, and all along the way… grace is the gift of God… not just the grace involved when we are born again… but the grace we need in our daily lives, in our dealings with people, in trying to obey God’s overwhelming will that we love one another and learn to trust and love God. That all needs so much grace.

        In the later years of my life, it is true that I have come to believe in a more so-called ‘liberal’ approach to the Bible, but I assure you I still value it so deeply. But what’s really been valuable for me has been the example and inspiration I’ve found from the sisters of two convents. That has really helped my relationship with God, through the practice of contemplation, and gazing towards God beyond words, in love. And often in that practice, God seems silent, and that is important too, because God does not come to us at the snap of a finger. And anyway, if you keep on loving, through the long silences you learn trust. And that calling to pray, both contemplatively and through intercession, has been a blessing and privilege. Having this ‘meeting place’ with God, where we are there together, and God loves me and I love God, and we find quiet spirit between us. And, just sometimes, although signs can be a distraction from the far more important thing which is simply loving God not signs, but sometimes, suddenly… God comes in perfection, and when that happens it is astonishing. I lead my prayer life on the example of a nun who understands this way, and the writings of Francesco de Osuna, and the writings of St Teresa and St Therese. We have much to learn from the religious lives of nuns (and monks) – about prayer, and about community.

        In all of this I find the Bible absolutely inspiring. In answer to (1) I don’t really see how we could have framed and passed down Christianity without the Bible. For (2), because it is late, I can only ask in reply ‘What exactly do we understand by the Word of God?’ For me, Jesus in person is the Word of God… that God who called creation into being… and keeps calling each of us, more and more, and again and again, into being. And though I regard the Bible as written attempts at explanation by fallible people, and believe God gives us conscience, minds, revelation in each situation in our lives, yet the Bible remains deeply informative, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can work through its lines in our hearts.

        Jesus the Word of God is *more* than the Bible, and Jesus is the message from God, and we can have living relationships with Jesus (who I regard as my very dear friend, my saviour, my God) but it’s not restricted to book concepts. People like everything neatly ruled and defined. We almost like to ‘box up’ God in a package we can contain and control

        God is not like that. God is wild. God’s love, and God’s coming, can’t be pinned down to a timetable. God is still that God who is the numinous presence in the mountains and the forests, in a meadow, in a home, or beside the ever-flowing stream. Indeed, God the Holy Spirit IS an ever-flowing stream…. the ever-flowing stream of love… and the power of that love… longing to inhabit us, and open us up, so that flowing stream can reach out into other people’s lives… just like that Christian lady’s did to mine.

        Sorry to end things there. I told Ian I would only post this week, during my holiday. But thank you, Colin, for taking the time, trouble and care to ask me those questions. And may the tender love of God, and the grace of God, always be with you.

        Susannah

        Reply
        • Susannah,

          Many thanks for your willingness to express your feelings so openly and so cogently. It’s rather unfortunate that given (a) the ongoing pandemic saga and (b) given the rapid rate of production and delivery within the media cosmos , the possibility of maintaining a meaningful dialogue is sometimes reduced – particularly when the discussion extends beyond the theological/biblical into the more personal/ pastoral domain. May I take his opportunity to wish you every blessing in the days that lie ahead.

          Colin

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  5. The words heading your blogsite here, Ian, claim that you represent ‘Scholarship Serving Ministry’. However, not all ‘scholarship’ is equal. Yours seems to derive from ‘Sola Scriptura’, which, from the evidence of your blog, would seem to deny any revelation of the Holy Spirit bring vouchsafed to the Church after the canonisation of the Scriptures contained in the R.S.V.

    It took a long time for theological scholars to adapt to the understanding of a world of evolution – as distinct from the ‘7-day Wonder’ of Creation quoted in Genesis. It took Jesus 3 years to disabuse the Scribes and Pharisees of their preoccupation with the ‘Law’ over the principle of ‘Grace’ – a problem for Conservative Evangelicals to absorb into their theology.

    One of the critical misunderstandingsof the Sola Scriptura school is to discount any new revelation on matters of gender and sexuality that has been given to us through the discipline of scientific research – not to mention the phenomonen of the discovery that the cosmos is far more extensive than once thought to be the case. The study of humanity is still going on, though, despite the unwillingness of conservative theologians to acknowledge this fact.

    Pope John XXIII, of blessed memory, urged the Church to consider the call to ‘Semper Reformanda’ – which covered the evolution of doctrine as well as liturgical reform. Sadly, the Old Guard of the Roman Catholic Church (apart from Pope Francis) is seeking to return to the past, rather than look to the future.

    Sadly, Sola Scriptura will only encourage intelligent ‘outsiders’ to dismiss the Church as totally irrelevent – unless that mind-set is changed to recognise the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the world of today.

    Reply

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