By Jonathan Rice

Interpreting the Bible, Part 1

What is Christian doctrine? And do words such as eschatology, sanctification, and atonement really have anything to do with our everyday, going-to-class, working, hanging-out-with-friends lives?

Christian doctrines begin as interpretations of the Bible. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have preserved what they believe the Bible teaches. They form doctrines so that they may remember what other Christians have historically believed about God, humanity, and God’s mission in this world.

These days it’s no less important than in ages past for us to understand Christian doctrine. So we’re offering you brief monthly posts about what Christians have historically believed are the core teachings of the Bible. We hope you find that these historic teachings not only broaden your understanding of Christianity but also deepen your love of God.

Do you remember the Uncle Remus story about Brer Rabbit? That rascally Brer Fox hated the clever Brer Rabbit. So one day Brer Fox devised a way to capture Brer Rabbit. Fox placed a little baby made of tar in the road, and when Rabbit happened by, he got stuck in the tar. As Fox came out from hiding, Rabbit said, “Brer Fox, you can roast me, hang me, and drown me—whatever you want. But please . . . please . . . don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

Was Brer Rabbit being sincere or ironic? Definitely ironic, since, as you may remember, Fox throws Rabbit into the briar patch, and Rabbit escapes, laughing. 

We know Brer Rabbit is being ironic, because rather than isolating his words, we place them in the larger context of the story. When Rabbit escapes, we rightly interpret his words by understanding their relation to the larger context of the story.

So, too, with interpreting the Bible. To understand what a biblical passage means, we read that passage not only in relation to its immediate context but also to the larger context of the entire Bible.

Context and More

Interpreting the Bible requires more than merely reading a biblical passage in context, however. Biblical interpretation also involves partnership between the reader, using established principles of interpreting a biblical text, and God’s Spirit, who illuminates the reader’s mind. Interpreting the Bible is the work of both God and a person.

Still, why is context so important? Let’s say a catastrophic event befalls a community, which causes the people there to desperately want to learn what the Bible says about human suffering. Again, like the Brer Rabbit example, if the community turns to one biblical passage and relies solely on that instance of suffering for its interpretation, they may not fully understand God’s revelation about human suffering, for they have ignored other important passages that describe similar events.

That is why one should never build a cathedral of theology balanced on a few proof-texts. By taking verses of the Bible out of context, one can prove the validity of almost anything—even jumping into a briar patch.

The Unity of the Bible

Context also shows us that the Bible contains a unity of meaning. Such unity presupposes that the spiritual truths of the Bible originate with God and are therefore consistent with God’s character, since God does not contradict himself. Readers may still find theological paradoxes and even accounts of historic events from different perspectives, but the deeper messages of the Bible will be consistent.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the Bible may be read at different levels. If the Bible is in any way like a novel, one might simply read the story for the entertainment of the plot, without ever going to the deeper level of meaning—the theme (or message) of the narrative. On the surface, at that level of mere plot, we may notice apparent contradictions in the text, since the same events are sometimes told from different perspectives. Such contradictions can be disconcerting.

But those readers who notice the apparent contradictions often seem to forget that even when descriptions of events are given from different perspectives, those various perspectives do not alter the spiritual truth. Like poets, historians, and storytellers everywhere, people can differ about the selection of details within an event yet still agree about the event’s deeper meaning. For this reason, we may claim that different perspectives can still share a unity of theme, message, and worldview.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

Because the Bible contains a unified truth, the reader may look to the Bible to interpret itself. In other words, when a reader questions a particular passage of Scripture, other texts in the Bible help give greater clarity to that passage.

“Scripture interprets Scripture” is, in fact, a fundamental doctrine of biblical interpretation. This doctrine does not mean that other scholarly helps for interpretation are irrelevant. It does, however, mean that the final word for interpreting a biblical passage is the Bible itself—not a cultural, economic, political, or ideological context derived from secondary sources. 

For sure, then, interpreting the Bible is more than merely reading the book. Interpreting the Bible requires that we learn to understand the Sacred Text by asking God’s Spirit to illuminate our minds and by using intelligent, historically valid principles of literary interpretation.

In part 2 of “Interpreting the Bible,” we’ll examine some of those practical principles of biblical interpretation, sometimes called hermeneutics.

Jonathan Rice is a Senior Editor/Writer with InterVarsity. He has a BA degree in Religious Studies, an MA in Creative Writing/English, an MDiv in Theology/Pastoral Studies, and a DMin in Homiletic and Narrative Theology. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and served as a pastor for nine years. Currently he works part time with InterVarsity and is writing a novel.

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