I’ve recently been reading an excellent book on reading the Bible the way that Jesus would have done in His time with the Hebrew Scriptures – more or less what we now know as the Old Testament. It’s called ‘Disarming Scripture’, by Derek Flood. There’s a link to a review and a summary of the book here. You can also click the image below to be taken to the Amazon page for the book in all its versions (Kindle, hardback etc.)
When studying the Bible, there are several factors which most studious readers consider.
There’s the context, in which the passage is considered in its setting within the book it is part of. So, a passage from, say, one of Paul’s letters, must be read a) remembering that this is a letter to real people, and b) taking into account the surrounding verses.
Then there’s hermeneutics and exegesis, which are related terms concerning the philosphy, interpretation and drawing out the meaning of the text.
It can get quite complex, actually. How do I know that I’m getting the ‘meaning’ I’m supposed to be getting from the Bible passage I’m reading? What if I’m reading this and getting the ‘wrong’ meaning?
I know people who have a simple faith. They don’t need deep study; they know Jesus intimately, they read their Bibles and they live their lives for him and bear fruit. They don’t need hermeneutics or anything like that; they do very well just reading their Bibles just ‘lightly’, if you see what I mean. No deep meaning, no years at Bible college. It’s simple. It’s called ‘common plain meaning’, or ‘plain reading’. You simply take in what the English (or whatever language you have) words mean as written in your copy of the Bible, and God speaks to you.
This is perfectly ok for personal faith and personal study. Simply let the Holy Spirit let you know what He wants you to get from a passage. Jesus says in John 16:13 that, “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into all truth.” And, in John 14:26 He says, “But … the Holy Spirit … will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you”. You know that burning sensation you get in your chest when the Spirit is speaking to you? Or maybe you feel Him differently; either way, you know that feeling you get when He’s speaking, and then the things He says to you come to pass…anyway if you get that feeling when reading a particular passage, then that’s a good sign that He’s telling you something. Listen. Take in what He’s saying. No problem.
As long as what you believe from the Bible affects only you, internally and spiritually, that’s fine. When it impacts on others, though – the minute your Scripture reading affects the way you relate to others, the way you treat others – that’s when you need to be absolutely sure that you know what that Scripture means.
So, when you formulate doctrine, or use the Bible to set rules (not that you should), customs, standards of behaviour, then that’s where the second level of interpretation comes in. That’s when you really need the hermeneutics and all the other fancy words. So many Christians take what God has spoken to them and assume He means it for all – but that’s not always the case; in fact, the things that God speaks to you in your personal time with Him are almost always for you and you alone. And remember that the Scripture was never intended to be a book of rules…the times when the Bible was written were very different from the time in which we live. It did not fall from the sky as a timeless document of rules that should apply at all times and to all people everywhere and everywhen!
To try to apply the Bible as a moral map today is therefore inviting disaster if the original passages are not properly understood, taking into account the original language, the hermeneutics, exegesis and cultural and historical context, and even then we should hesitate to formulate rules or behavioural standards from it, and try to apply them to the people under our care…and especially not to the people who are not under our care.
The way to apply the Bible in a moral sense today is to take its trajectory – that is, the way it points us; its general direction – and apply the sense of it and not the letter of the law as we see it. In fact, the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is written in such a way that the Law is in constant tension with God’s Mercy. It is actually assumed that we are supposed to wrestle with the things of God; we are supposed to grab hold of the difficult questions and thrash them out until we get God’s take on them. This is why the Bible is so full of anger and violence, and yet also of love and mercy. This is why the Bible appears to contradict itself. And, because it was written by real humans who had a different yet particular views of God, and were trying to make sense of everything they saw around them in those primitive times of violence and tribal warfare.
Over the centuries, so many atrocities have been done in God’s name precisely because what it says in English is applied as authoritative, and ignoring the hermeneutics of the passage in question. We need to apply what is called ‘faithful questioning’. Feel free to wrestle with God’s word with a clear conscience!
We must also always read Scripture through the lens of God’s love. If you feel the Bible is suggesting a particular course of action that is not also loving, then chances are it’s not what God wants. It is the responsibility of every reader of the Bible to weigh the passage in a moral sense. That way lies proper balance; that way is the way of peace – the way of Jesus.
Let me leave you with a quotation from ‘Disarming Scripture’:
“The true beauty of the Hebrew Bible is that it welcomes and makes room for diversity, and for the marginal voices to be heard. We honor this by entering ourselves into an ethical reading and critical engagement with the text.
“This involves our questioning and challenging the Bible, but it equally involves allowing ourselves to be challenged and stretched by it as well. It demonstrates that truth is found in the struggle together – that questioning is the mark of a healthy faith, and the reflection of a robust character. To honour this in Scripture, we need to learn to approach the Bible not as passive readers, but as morally engaged and thinking readers. That is the hermeneutic of faithful questioning.”