Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

A Reader’s Guide to the Bible (Jan – Feb 1994)

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by Mark C. Black
January – February, 1994

It was only about ten weeks ago that I responded to a lady who had just explained a difficult situation and asked me for advice. “What does the Bible say about it?” I asked. Her answer: “I don’t know Greek. I’m not a Bible scholar. That’s why you are here, isn’t it?” It is a good question, and it has bothered me a lot. On the one hand, I am supposed to be trained to interpret Scripture. On the other, she was not asking me to discuss the finer points of particular passages. She was asking me just to give her the bottom line. I decided I couldn’t do that. I am convinced that Christians must take personal responsibility for living under the Word of God. But is this reasonable? After all, she had said it well. She was no Bible scholar.

Do you really have to know about the synoptic problem, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Greek word for “knowledge” in order to understand the great majority of biblical teachings? I don’t think so. I fear that we have been subtly encouraged to leave the task of interpretation to the “experts,” and we are much the poorer for it. Let me offer a few rules and a few tools which, when combined with a little effort, will lead to effective Bible study. You can do these things.

Rule Number One: Read the text, and then read the text. The next step is to read it again. Quite seriously, there can be no substitute for familiarity with the text, including those portions you do not fully understand. This will require some time at the beginning of a study of a new book, but nothing you can do will pay greater dividends. As you read, ask questions: What themes are repeated? Why is the writer saying this? What has led the writer to write this book? What is happening in the lives of the intended readers? The first time through you will pick up on repeated themes and the basic flow of the book. The next time through the structure will begin to reveal itself. You will discover hints regarding the intentions of the author, and the interpretive process will be in full swing. After the third or fourth time through the whole book, you should focus your study on a specific section. You will by that time have enough understanding to know how your smaller section relates to the whole.

A negative way of stating rule number one is this: Leave the popular books and commentaries on the shelf until you have wrestled with the text for yourself. There are many reasons for this advice. Most important is the fact that nothing hinders the thinking process as much as having someone else do it for you. Not only are we intimidated by the knowledge of the scholarly author (“Who am I to argue with William Barclay?”), even worse, we are robbed of the opportunity even to ask the questions and formulate possible answers. Consequently, we are left without the knowledge which would allow us to evaluate the answers of others. So don’t pick up popular authors until you can carry on a dialogue with them. Read the text. You can do this.

Of all Bible readers of all generations, we are the most fortunate. Not only do we have the benefit of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Bible (many of which have been discovered in the last 75 years), more importantly, there have never been more readable or more accurate translations than there are today. Any of a dozen or more versions will give the reader a trustworthy account of God’s Word to humanity. That does not mean, of course, that all versions are of equal value for all people. Several have been translated for children or for other groups which need a simplified Bible. While they are excellent for these purposes, there is always a trade-off between simplicity and accuracy. Fortunately, there are a number of versions which combine accuracy with readability.

I recommend that all serious Bible readers adopt the habit of reading two translations, one from each of two categories. The first category includes such Bibles as the New International Version, New English Bible, and others which have sought to restate in modern English the thought rather than the language, grammar, or style of the original. (This does not include the paraphrases such as The Living Bible, which should be read only after coming to conclusions based on better translations.)

The NIV, now the largest-selling bible in the U.S., illustrates well the strengths and weaknesses of these versions. For example, it often replaces the term “flesh” in Paul’s writings with the phrase “sinful nature.” This probably represents well what Paul intended and is certainly easier to understand than the term “flesh,” which implies to many that Paul believes the physical body is the real source of sin.

The strength of such versions is obvious, but it is clear that their philosophy of translation involves considerable interpretation. In the above example, the reading “sinful nature” is perhaps the closest equivalent to what Paul intended—but there are other possibilities. The advantage to the reader is that the translators have made clear the meaning that they assume the original readers would have understood. The disadvantage is that the translators are not infallible, and the reader is not given the opportunity to derive a different meaning. The ambiguity of the original is lost. While most in our churches will normally agree with the NIV interpretation since it was done by a fine team of Bible-believing scholars, it is too interpretive to be one’s only Bible. It is, however, a fine translation. I am especially impressed with the NIV Study Bible, whose notes actually serve sometimes to counteract the interpretive approach of the translators. Although some of its interpretive notes are unacceptable, its good introductory articles, background notes, maps, diagrams, and concordance place this edition high on my list of recommended study aids.

Even if you have become attached to one of the easy-to-read Bibles, you should also use one of the more literal versions. These versions, among which are the New American Standard Version (NASV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), and New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), have attempted to maintain the structure, style, and often the idioms of the original languages. They occasionally sacrifice easy understanding in favor of retaining the form of the original, and they will often leave a passage ambiguous. However, this will be seen as an asset rather than a liability by the most serious students, and they will use one of the more literal versions as their primary Bible.

Some may be puzzled by the inclusion of the NASV and the NRSV in the same category. The NASV is the most literal Bible available today. It is unfortunate that it has been made more difficult to understand by being divided into verses rather than paragraphs. This arrangement, like that of the King James Version (KJV), encourages reading sentences and even half-sentences as separate paragraphs which stand on their own. But for those who can get past this drawback and who can understand the “Greekized” and “Hebrewized” English, it will serve them well.

The NRSV lies on the other end of the spectrum of “literal” versions but is nonetheless in that group. One should be warned, however, that it is the first of what will be many “inclusive language” versions. The NRSV has not tampered with the gender of any of the biblical characters, including the gender of God or the references to him as father. However, the translators have avoided generic references to “men,” “brothers,” and male pronouns such as “him” when those terms in the original were not meant to exclude women. For example, Paul’s letters in the NRSV are often addressed to “brothers and sisters,” a reading which does not violate what Paul intended. The rationale for such a change is that American English is changing, and that, increasingly, the use of masculine terms implies that only males are being addressed. Most of the resulting changes will be found generally acceptable, but the translators did occasionally give up good translation in order to use inclusive language (see Matthew 18.) Each reader must decide whether or not she or he can live with this approach.

Rule Number Two: Read your Bible just as you read other literature. Of course, this does not mean you regard the Bible as uninspired and unauthoritative writings, as you do the works of Shakespeare or Frost. It does mean that the rules for understanding are pretty much the same. In fact, you already know most of them. Poetry, for example, allows for greater freedom of expression than prose. Consequently, just like the poetry you studied in school, the psalms and other poetry in the Bible are often purposefully metaphorical and are intended to evoke a response from the heart. Similarly, as you know from reading Benjamin Franklin, sayings of the wise are general truths rather than absolute laws. The same is true of the proverbs in the Bible. The interpretation of letters likewise has its own set of rules. They must be read as if you are hearing only one end of a conversation, because that is precisely what is happening. The reader must have at least a minimal knowledge of the situation of the writer and recipient, because the writing of the letter was occasioned by a specific situation.

A further rule in common with all literary interpretation is that every passage in the Bible must be read in light of the entire book in which it is found. You cannot simply open your Bible, read a verse or even a paragraph, and expect a blessing from God. It matters, for example, that the command, ““seek and you will find,”” comes toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount and not in isolation. The intent was never to encourage a carte blanche approach to prayer but to encourage prayer for the attributes expressed in the Sermon. Our Bibles are simply not collections of thousands of single-sentence sayings which yield up their message only to those who somehow have discovered the code by which to decipher this mysterious puzzle. It comes as a surprise to many to discover that the Bible was written just as other literature was written—by ordinary people for ordinary people. The big difference is that God has through inspiration guided the process.

I have found that my 18-year-old students are actually quite good at interpreting their Bibles when given a few rules and the permission to read them as they do the writings in their literature courses. It is only when they are given interpretations which seem to violate their common sense or which are based on what seems to be some sort of esoteric knowledge that they lose confidence and get discouraged. My advice is to pay little attention to those who constantly use arguments which you are not able to follow or evaluate. You can interpret your Bible. In fact, you can do it well.

Rule Number Three: Acquaint yourself with the background information which relates to your text. This is the most difficult step in the process. The simple fact is that none of the biblical writings were written directly to us. Therefore the initial goal of Bible study is to determine how the author intended for his original readers to understand his writing. We must ask what it meant before we can ask what it means.

We must therefore learn all that we can about the people and the culture of the biblical book we are studying. This is the time to turn to the “experts.” Fortunately, we live in a time in which there are marvelous resources which offer easily understood discussions of every imaginable topic. Bible encyclopedias such as the new four-volume The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. G. W. Bromiley, 1988) or the one-volume New Bible Dictionary (Ed. J. D. Douglas, 1962) are the primary tools for this purpose. They contain articles on people (for example, Pilate or Gamaliel), institutions (Sanhedrin, synagogue), events (building of Herod’s temple, persecution under Nero), and customs (head coverings, divorce). They also offer brief introductions to each book of the Bible which are quite helpful after the first or second time you read the text. They discuss such information as the identity and situation of the author and recipients.

You can do this, and you will feel confident about your understanding of the Bible. You can pick up a readable translation, interpret it according to the rules you are accustomed to, and look up strange customs and events just as you use a dictionary when you do not know a word. Of course, there will be areas in which you will be unsure of the meaning. What do you do then?

This is the point at which the commentaries are to be consulted, but they must be chosen and used carefully. A good commentary is one which acquaints the reader with several possible interpretations of difficult passages and then offers a preferred interpretation. Incidentally, there are no extra points given for new and unusual interpretations. If only one author has the answer, it is probably a wrong answer. As a general rule, you will find helpful the following commentary sets: Tyndale, New International Commentary, New International Bible Commentary, and Living Word Commentary.

Only after you have arrived at your own understanding should you turn to the popular books and tapes which address your text (for example, Swindoll’s books which are loosely based on biblical texts.). These writings are often very helpful because they are usually written to accomplish a practical goal, they are written with passion, and they tend to be far more interesting than commentaries and encyclopedias. But they are no substitute for serious Bible study, and they are often wrong. Unfortunately, you will have no basis on which to evaluate them if you have not studied the passage for yourself.

Rule Number Four: Always combine Bible reading with constant prayer. This is the most important part of the process. It is not that God whispers answers in our ears. But to seek God’s guidance in prayer is to recognize that our greatest problem in interpreting the Bible is not our lack of tools or even our lack of knowledge. The greatest obstacle is our tendency to use the text for our own ends, whether to prop up our own righteousness, to attack our enemies, to support our predetermined ideas, or to dazzle our Sunday school class with our expertise. Only with the help of God can we hope to stand under the text rather than above it, to let God use his Word to do his work on us rather than us using the text for our own agendas.

Our fellowship has a commendable history of making no distinction between clergy and laity. It has been our claim that Christians have the right and even the duty to interpret the Bible for themselves. Our future as a back-to-the-Bible movement depends on continuing this emphasis. By following these rules, you will gain a confidence with the Word of God that is unavailable to the dabbler in God’s Word. And just a few years from the time you begin, you will be a tremendous source of blessing to the church in which you will be an influential leader. With God’s help, you can do this.Wineskins Magazine

Mark C. Black

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