Introducing a series based on material Tim Bulkeley and his colleagues (George Wieland and Sarah Harris) taught at Carey Baptist College on understanding and interpreting the Bible.
It seems straightforward to say that Scripture is the basis of our faith and practice. Indeed, the essential truths of the Bible are clear:
• God is creator.
• God loves creation.
• Creation is spoilt by human sinfulness.
• Human effort cannot mend this brokenness.
• God reconciles the world through Jesus.
• We should love God and others.
Yet some people deny even these things! Sects have strange teachings, claiming to read them in Scripture. Even Christians discussing difficult issues often disagree about what Scripture means.
So, we need to understand what the Bible is, and how it should be read. This series of articles sets out simple principles that will help you to read the Bible 'faithfully.'
Many people assume that reading the Bible is easy – just look at the words and read them, and take what it says as 'straightforward literal truth.' This is not always possible. Scripture often talks in pictures, and pictures need interpreting: The Bible calls God king, but which things about kings are true of God? We cannot read picture-language simply.
Many important issues today were not faced by writers of the Bible: Are certain computer games anti-Christian? What about 'healing crystals'? The differences between our situation and theirs matters in other ways too. We no longer relate to God through the covenant Moses made at Sinai (but through the New Covenant sealed by Jesus’ blood) so Old Testament laws no longer apply to us directly. Christians are not required to make the sacrifices detailed in Leviticus to atone for our sins (Leviticus 4, see Hebrews 9), nor are we required to refrain from “unclean” foods (Levicus 11, see Acts 10). Yet Jesus said that he did not "come... to abolish but to fulfill” these laws (Matthew 5:17).
Without a clear understanding of how to read the Bible faithfully, we risk either insisting that some rules are abolished (though not usually the ones we approve of) or suggesting Jesus did not “fulfill” some laws.
Since our circumstances are so different from those of the Bible’s authors, their teaching may not be directly transferable today. Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters and says nothing about abolishing slavery, yet all Christians today agree that slavery is wrong. By the end of this series you should be able to explain such issues to yourself and others.
What is reading 'faithfully'?
First and foremost, to read Scripture faithfully means to read in faith. We trust God to reveal truth to us, and pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to fill out our reading. Only reading that is prayerfully open to God’s revelation is 'faithful.' But is this all?
God chose to deliver Scripture in particular ways. At Sinai, God first wrote his words on stone tablets, then later dictated a second set to Moses to write down (Exodus 31:18; 34:1ff.). But most of the Bible was not given directly like this. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1). God inspired people in many different times and places: Moses in the desert, David in Jerusalem, Ezekiel in Babylon . . . different people, different periods, different places, different life-issues. This varied collection was God’s deliberate choice, so we should take the variety seriously. God gave the written Word 'incarnate' (enfleshed in particular situations), just as God the Son became 'incarnate' in a particular time and place. Reading the Bible faithfully respects its incarnate nature. We respect the means of delivery God chose, so that we may faithfully hear God’s voice.
So, reading the Bible faithfully involves thinking about what each Bible writer wanted to communicate to their particular audience. If the message we 'get' from James’ letter conflicts with the message James intended for his audience, we are not reading faithfully. In the next few months, we will spend time and effort learning how to read in ways that are more faithful to these 'original' messages.
But wait, there’s more!
Reading in ways that are faithful to the circumstances and message God inspired is important, but it is not enough. An atheist may be able to discern the message Paul wanted the Galatians to understand, but that alone is not reading the Bible faithfully. God intends Scripture to change us (see e.g. Isaiah 55:10-11). If our reading is not applied to our living, it is not faithful to God’s intent.
We must not only recognise the message the Bible writer (inspired by the Holy Spirit) wanted their audience to get, but also recognise the eternal truth on which they based that (time-bound) message. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul wanted the Corinthians to act and think in certain ways when faced with the problem of invitations to share in meals that included meat 'offered' to idols. We must not only understand Paul’s message for them, but also recognise the truths about God and God’s relationship with the world that Paul was expressing in his advice.
But it does not stop there. If such truths are recognised but not acted upon, then (like faith without works - see James 2:17) they are dead and not living words. To 'apply' the truth of Scripture, we need to recognise the sorts of circumstances in our lives and world that fit, and then think and pray about how it can be made real now.
Coming soon . . .
This first article sets the scene. In coming issues of the NZ Baptist, we will make these ideals concrete with simple steps to take the messengers of Scripture and their messages seriously, discover what God was saying then, and work out what this means for us.
To deepen your understanding of key ideas, try reading and rereading two similar but different Bible books e.g. Amos and Hosea (short prophecies to Israel around 750BC) or the epistles of James and 1 John (short letters to early Christians). As you read, spot differences in personality, and emphasis or focus. The unique character of each book shines through.
To discuss these articles and for more resources, see bigbible.org/faithfully/
Tim taught Old Testament for ten years as a missionary in Congo, and at Carey Baptist College for twenty years. Now he lives in the Bay of Plenty and teaches online and as a visitor overseas.
Photo Credit: KevinCarden/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.