The Bible Interpreter's Guide

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THE INTERPRETER’S JOURNEY

Exploring the Scriptures is like a journey into another world. The Bible was written in different cultures and times than our own. The language is unfamiliar, the names are hard to pronounce, the customs and traditions are peculiar, the characters are complicated, and the events are shocking. Interpreting Scripture requires an engaged mind and heart, perseverance and curiosity, and prayerful dependence on the Spirit. We do not traverse the terrain of the Bible to prove our intellect or increase our spiritual résumé. We embrace the Word of God to encounter the living God. Although the Biblical world feels distant from us, the sovereign God of Scripture, who called out Abram, passed before Moses, established the house of David, and sent his Son, Jesus, is the same God who reigns over our world and speaks to us in the Bible today. We are invited into a lifetime of discovering and rediscovering the truths of Scripture through interpretation.

THE INTERPRETER’S CRISIS

We have an abundance of resources available online and on bookshelves that teach us how to interpret the Bible. Even so, most readers will inevitably face a problem. Have you ever shared your take on a passage to someone else, only to hear them reply, “That’s just your interpretation”? Are we all left to our own opinions on a text or is there original intent to uncover? How many commentaries or original language sources must we utilize to have sure footing? The interpretive journey is fraught with pitfalls and surprising turns—even beloved, familiar passages can transform into enigmas once you pay close attention to them. How do we go on the journey of reading the Bible without distorting it?

THE INTERPRETER’S TOOLKIT

The key to interpreting Scripture is to let the book itself determine the questions that we ask. Dr. Karl Kutz, Professor of Hebrew and Chair of Biblical Languages at Multnomah University and Biblical Seminary, says, “It happens repeatedly in the classroom. Students come to a passage like Genesis 1, and the typical question is, ‘Is it about creation or evolution?’ But that is not the question that the text is asking. As you go through the process of learning how to interpret the text, you start to ask the questions that the text is asking, you start to see your world differently, you start to engage life differently, and you start to think in a different way.”

How do you determine which questions the text is asking? Consider what the context suggests was the author’s intended message. Go on the journey back to them and then.

Think through two main categories of context: historical and literary.

Historical

  • Who wrote the book if the author is known?
  • When did they write?
  • What cultural and political situation did the writer live in?
  • Who is the original audience?
  • How is the book shaped for future generations of readers?

Literary

  • Which genre is the book written in? (Narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, etc.)
  • What patterns or structure can you identify within the text?
  • What happens before and after the passage you are reading?
  • What literary devices (Personification, parallelism, contrast, etc.) enhance the author’s message?
  • Are there allusions to other passages that require investigation?
  • How does the book open and close?

These questions are only the beginning of the interpretive conversation, but they set the trajectory to discovering the meaning of the text. Before consulting the plethora of study resources, attempt to answer them from the text for yourself first as you read and reread the passage or book.

THE INTERPRETER’S LENSES

Although better questions and context will help our efforts, our personal frameworks and theology can still get in the way. Many of us would rather not examine our interpretive lenses to see if our traditions are blurring our sight of the text. It is important to ask yourself if you have imposed the ideas and frameworks of your mind onto the text. Sometimes those ideas can be difficult to identify— a fish doesn’t know that it’s swimming in water but that water impacts everything that fish does. Similarly, we all have cultural waters that we swim in. No one can approach the Scriptures without a point of view, framework, theology, or background. However, we cannot interpret a passage faithfully when our contexts and agendas dominate the interaction. An awareness of our interpretive lenses will help us recognize where our questions are less relevant, where our conclusions are preconceived, and even where an opposing view could be more accurate or equally viable. The Bible simply does not answer every question that we pose, but it answers the eternally important questions. Psalm 1:2-3 tells us that those who meditate on the Word of God will be, “like a tree planted by flowing streams that bears fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither.” The hard work of interpreting Scripture brings us life, joy, and transformation because God speaks to us through it.

If you would like to continue this conversation and are interested in learning more about exploring Scripture, pursuing your Master of Divinity at Multnomah Biblical Seminary could be the next step for you. Our Master of Divinity program is offered both online and on-campus in Portland, OR. For more details on this program or to receive an application by mail, contact Admissions at (800) 275-4672 or admissions@multnomah.edu.

January 29, 2020 | News