Last summer, my family and I visited Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to visit the different museums around the historic city. While I’m quite sure my son enjoyed the visit to the US Bureau of Printing and Engraving more than any other attraction, I enjoyed the visit to the National Archives building where we stood over the Constitution of the United States of America along with the Bill of Rights and other historic documents.
If you want to really pick a fight with people, just talk about amending the Constitution and changing the historical document. Many people are extremely sensitive about the Constitution and believe in preserving the intent of the founding fathers of our nation. As I think back to my visit to see these old documents, I was struck by much more than the signatures of John Hancock and former presidents. I was amazed at the high tech security and security guards positioned next to the casing where the documents are housed in the museum. Much effort goes into preserving these historic pieces of paper.
When it comes to the historic documents of our nation, we seek to preserve the intention of the authors and signees, but when it comes to the Bible, why are we willing to play “fast and loose” with the biblical text? For many conservative Christians, they approach the Bible as a book written by God. However, they don’t pay much attention to the authorial intent of the specific text they’re reading. What did Paul intend for the church at Galatia? What about the church at Corinth? What was his overall goal with the church at Ephesus? What about young Timothy, why did Paul labor so much near the end of his life to write to Timothy?
The fancy “seminary” word for Bible interpretation is hermeneutics. The word hermeneutics, in brief, means the science of biblical interpretation. Most church members in the average evangelical church don’t use the term – hermeneutics, but they do employ specific interpretative methods each time they open their Bible. You see, it matters how we approach the Bible.
Are we merely cherry picking verses or quotes of Jesus about a selected topic or are we seeking to read the Bible in the broad context through a specific lens? Are we approaching the Bible in order to change the historic meaning to a more updated meaning that better suits our lifestyle or our culture? Do we have a right to assign meaning to the Constitution of the United States of America? The simple answer is – no. Why do so many people seem to think the Bible is an open book that provides us with revisionist license to change and alter meaning?
When we read Exodus are we connecting the dots to Jesus’ death on the cross and His priestly office as described in Hebrews or do we simply soldier through Exodus as if it’s disconnected history? Martin Luther rightly stated, “No man understands the Scriptures, unless he be acquainted with the cross.”
When reading the Bible, it’s vital to ask good questions about the text such as:
- Who wrote this particular book?
- What was his purpose / goal?
- How is this single text and the events taking place in this text connected to the history of redemption or the big story of salvation?
- What difficult words and verses are in this text that make it difficult to understand? Is there another place in the Bible where these same words are used by the same author? What about outside the specific author of this text? When reading the overall context, what does the natural definition of the words seem to mean?
- What is the single meaning of this text? Keep in mind, there is only one meaning for the text.
Does this remove the joy of reading the Bible? I would argue in the opposite direction. I think it increases joy as you’re able to unpack truth that will come to play in your life. There is a certain amount of joy in uncovering and discovering truth in the Bible – otherwise there is no end goal or purpose in your Bible reading.
As you hear people (especially during heated political conversations) talk about preserving the intentions of the founding fathers as they’re recorded in the historic documents of our nation, let that be a simple reminder about the necessity to preserve the meaning of the human author in each text of Scripture. Whatever God wanted to communicate is exactly what the human author wrote. However, he was not writing as a robot. God specifically chose and designed each human author so as to write and communicate from a certain perspective, with certain vocabulary, and with a certain personality. In short, what the human author wrote is what God wrote. This is the beauty of biblical inspiration. The goal in biblical interpretation is to unearth the gems of divine truth each time we read the Bible.
The Bible may be old, but it’s relevant. It may seem outdated, but it’s more relevant than our modern publications – including the morning’s newspaper. The Bible may seem insufficient to deal with the complexities of a modern culture, but each time we examine the hot topics being debated in the town square or the Supreme Court, they always have a connection to this old book that we call the Bible. Therefore, how we read it matters.
Thomas Watson once said, “The Scripture is to be its own interpreter, or rather the Spirit speaking in it; nothing can cut the diamond; nothing can interpret Scripture but Scripture.”1
1. Thomas Watson, A Puritan Golden Treasury, compiled by I.D.E. Thomas, by permission of Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA. 2000, p. 37.