Virtually anytime I preach, teach, or speak at a faith-based event people will ask me questions about the Bible. Many people want to know how to read and understand Scripture better. They put in the time and exerted the effort to open God’s Word, but they lack confidence in their ability to interpret what is written. And that’s totally understandable. Reading and understanding Scripture can prove challenging for even the most experienced reader.
For starters, a ton of different translations of Scripture exist. Some versions strive to be word-for-word translations, like the English Standard Version and the New American Standard. Others, like the New International Version, hope to provide a thought-for-thought translation. The word-for-word translators worked hard to find the exact word that best reflects the original Greek or Hebrew. On the other hand, the thought-for-thought translators attempt to capture the overall meaning of the text. Both are committed to producing an accurate interpretation of the original text. Of course, we do not have a copy of the original text available to us. However, numerous reliable and proven texts exist so that we can have confidence that what we are reading today is an accurate reflection of what the original authors inspired by the Holy Spirit, recorded. I suggest pick a translation that works for you. You can always choose a different one later.
But how, then, do we understand what we are reading? How do we adequately grasp what God’s Word is saying? Great question.
In my course of study, pursing an interdisciplinary studies degree in Christian Ministry and Communication, I spent a lot of time studying Scripture. In a course in hermeneutics (the study of interpreting Scripture), I was introduced to the book “Grasping God’s Word” written by J. Daniel Hays and J. Scott Duvall. The roadmap for interpreting the Bible we are reading is something I found to be most helpful. It is a method that I have relied on a lot both in my own personal reading and in preparation for sharing God’s Word with others.
Hays and Duvall outline the Interpretive Journey through four key steps:
- Grasping the text in their town
- Measuring the width of the river to cross
- Crossing the principal bridge
- Grasping the text in our town
Step 1: Grasping the Text in Their Town
When meditating on Scripture and trying to understand what we have read, we begin by asking what the text meant to the biblical audience it was written to. Our role is to carefully ascertain the original intent of the author and the audience that his writing is originally intended to speak to. This is often called exegesis. Exegesis refers to the careful, intentional study of Scripture to discover the original meaning. We cannot correctly apply Scripture to our own lives without first understanding what it meant to those who heard it first and what the author wanted to communicate to his original audience. To apply it correctly now, we need to accurately know what it meant then.
Step 2: Measuring the Width of the River to Cross
The next step in understanding Scripture requires that we assess the width of the river we have to cross. The biblical audience is different than we are today. They lived in a different time, different culture, and different world. There was no internet or Google. There were no smartphones or smart tablets. Crazy, right?
How are we different? How are we alike?
To be sure, a lot separates us from the original audiences of the Bible. Languages, culture, government, circumstances, situations, covenants, and time periods all collude to create a divide, like a river cutting through the land of peace, love and understanding. We stand on one shore, while the original hearers of God’s Word stand on another. We must address these differences so that we can correctly interpret Scripture.
Step 3: Crossing the Principal Bridge
Having identified what the text meant to the original audience and measured the differences between then and now, we ask “What is the theological principle in this text?”
The theological principle refers to the undergirding meaning of the text. These is the principle that spans true over time. It remains as true today as it was then.
Example: God is good.
To correctly identify the theological principle in a passage, we must recall the differences and similarities between today’s audience and the original audience. What is the overarching theological principle demonstrated in the text? The theological principle forms the bridge that allows us to cross the river from then to now.
The principle should be reflected in the text and must be timeless and not tied to a specific situation. The principle must not be culturally bound and correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture. We must ask, does this fit with what the rest of the Bible teaches? The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience. We must take great care to avoid adding something that is not there. We must avoid inflicting our own biases in formulating the theological principle.
Warning: If you think you discovered a completely new theological principle, seek the wise counsel of others before you go out and teach it as Truth.
We should seek the wise counsel of others when we identify a theological principle to help ensure we are handling God’s Word accurately and speaking about God rightly. Getting it right matters to God. It should matter to us.
Step 4: Grasping the Text in Our Town
“How should individual Christians today apply the theological principle in their lives?”
Here is where we must ask how can we apply the theological principle we learned from careful study of the text to our lives today. We can take the theological principle and develop applications for our lives in the 21st century. Timeless truths remain applicable today just as they were relevant to the audience then. Again, we must be careful not to put something there that is not there.
There are a number of methods for accurately interpreting and understanding God’s Word. Duvall and Hays method happens to be the one that I use because it works for me. I hope the same will be true for you.
Prayer: Father God, help us read and understand your Word. It is Your revelation of Yourself and of Your Will for our lives to us. Help us comprehend what You meant the audience then to hear. Help us measure the width of the river we need to cross and help us identify the timeless truths that You, Father God, want us to take away from our study of Your Word. Father God, empower us, guide us, and direct us in applying the Truth of Your Word to our lives in this World today. In Jesus name…Amen.
Photos courtesy of Pixabay.
Duvall, J. Scott and Hays, J. Daniel (2001). Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 2nd ed. Zondervan. Grand Rapids.