This post is part of an ongoing series on reading, interpreting, and studying the Bible. Click here for all the posts in this series.
“Right now, Miss Di.” If I only had a dollar for every time I heard it. It didn’t take me long after moving into the large home bustling with children to realize our understanding of the term “right now” was drastically different. To them it meant something akin to our American phrase “Just give me a minute.” I would hilariously emphasize my words to communicate my desire for them to hurry. “No, now. Now now” it would come out, my pointer finger jabbing in emphasis.
I didn’t realize how much I’d adopted the phrase until I said it to pacify my little cousin on one of my trips back to the States. He quipped, “You don’t mean ‘right now.’ Why did you say that?” And so the cultural confusion continued.
The issue was more than simply language and phrases. The issue was cultural. I’m American. I like things to be speedy. I judge “timing” by a clock. Central American culture has a different perspective.
I had to take time to understand. To understand the language. To understand the culture. Then I could interpret correctly what they were saying. It was not complex. It was not beyond my ability to comprehend. But it did require recognizing that I had to pay attention to both the words used and the cultural background behind them.
Why Can’t I “Just Read It”?
Reading the Bible is similar to my experience in Central America. It is an inherently cross-cultural experience and asks us to pay attention as we read it.
The Bible is God’s Word to us, and it is applicable and true to people in all times and places. It reveals to us who God is and the way He has and is working in the world. It tells us the story of Redemption, and it teaches the way we are to live in light of it.
But because God chose to reveal Himself through the means of human language, embedded in history, the Bible requires careful study to interpret it well. He used dozens of authors, from different languages and continents, over the span of at least 1500 years to tell the story of His work in the world. We read the Bible’s words today in a different language, a different millennium, a different continent, a different culture.
This does not mean the Bible is only understandable if you’re an expert or if you can read the original biblical languages. It does not mean there is a secret and hidden meaning to Scripture that can only be grasped by the elite and intellectual.
It does mean we should be aware and careful as we read, interpret, and apply the Bible. We pay attention to the possibility of linguistic and cultural dynamics we might not see on a first read through. We are careful not to assume the Bible was written from a Western, post-Enlightenment perspective.
Treating the Bible with the care it deserves as God’s Word invites us to go beyond “just reading it.” We are invited to study it.
First, It Was His Word to Them
We easily forget when we read the Bible that we’re already interpreting it. The translation you choose involves many interpretive decisions already made for you. Reading (or any kind of communication) itself is an interpretive practice, as you derive meanings from groupings of words, illustrations, logical progressions, etc. Then add the cultural understandings of words, images, and values as a lens through which you understand everything...
Interpretation is happening. The key is to set ourselves up for a good interpretation.
The first step in a good interpretation of a Bible passage is this: Start with what God’s word was to the original audience, in the original context. Remember, it was His Word to them first, so we must consider what they would have understood then and there. This isn’t just the first step with tricky passages of the Bible. It’s always the first step.
In technical-speak we call this first step—exploring the Bible in its original intended meaning—exegesis. While the input of “experts” is helpful—and sometimes necessary—there are some basic principles and practices that can help us all to read the Bible better. This is what we’ll be talking about here in our Tools & Resources posts over the next several weeks.
Just a Few Notes Until Next Time…
The Bible is fully true and authoritative. We must remember that we—and our favorite Bible teachers—are not. This does not mean the Bible is unknowable and its truth beyond our reach. It does mean we should approach the Bible with humility as we seek to understand.
We do not worship a book. We worship the Author of the book. Our Trinity is not “Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.” It is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the truth. We need Him to make our hearts pliable to obey it. We are transformed not by Bible study but by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and making us new.