In this series I will be exploring how to read and understand the bible by first looking at some of the ways that we do it poorly. Bad teaching is usually very subtle rather than obvious, so it’s helpful to identify clearly bad ways of doing things, so that you can better identify it when it is more subtle.
If you’d like to see the other articles in this series, click here
Texts are not math equations. It is not as if all we need to do is understand the meaning of every word in a sentence, add it all up and then get the meaning, in the same way that 7+4+33-21×3/4 = 28.25. That’s not how words work. Rather, the assumptions that the reader has when they approach a text largely determine the meaning that they end up finding in the text. This includes external assumptions, about how the world works, what people are like, etc. But it also includes assumptions about the text itself, namely what the text is for, its purpose.
We cannot faithfully read and understand the scriptures until we rid ourselves of unhelpful assumptions about what the bible is for. Here, I discuss the two unhelpful assumptions that I find to be the most common: the bible as a source for personal inspiration/self-help and the bible as a doctrinal textbook.
The Bible as Inspirational Self-Help
This way of reading the bible is probably the easiest to see as immediately deficient. This view tends to read the bible as if everything is really about the reader and thus ignores that the different texts of the bible are writing to different audiences in different times and places. And more importantly, that the writers are writing to their own audiences primarily.
For example, Jeremiah 29:11 is probably the most abused verse in the entire bible in our modern context. It says: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The self-help view immediately latches on to this verse, but divorced of its immediate context and reads it as God talking to the reader directly. They see this verse as talking about God’s wonderful plans for happiness, a career, wealth, health, a spouse, well-behaved children, etc. Never mind of course, the previous verse: “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place,” which makes it abundantly clear that this is not at all talking to them.
This is not to say that we don’t bother reading Jeremiah. After all, there is a reason why we read the OT. God is the same today, yesterday, and forever, and the way he acted in history tells us something about the kind of God he is and therefore what he is going to do with us.
The Jeremiah 29:11 example is a bit obvious, but this assumption creeps up in more subtle ways as well. It happens any time a bible study asks what a verse or passage “means to you,” never mind what it meant to the original hearers. It happens whenever we look for “life applications” in the bible. We’re never satisfied with letting the Word of God speak to us on its own terms, we have to figure out a way for us to “apply it,” which usually means finding something for us to do, rather than focusing on what God has done or promises to do. It’s also the assumption behind the common aphorism, “A bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” Again, this is not to say that the bible does not give us guidance, but if we assume that the main purpose of the bible is to give us life advice we will miss the main message of the scriptures.
The Bible as Doctrinal Textbook
While the previous assumption is more common among casual or experientially focused Christians, more serious or theologically focused Christians are more likely to find themselves using this assumption. This view sees the bible as primarily a source material for building systematic theology. Of course, when we are asking systematic questions we do want to make sure to use the bible as our source material. Everything we believe should be supported by scripture. This is very true. However, this does not mean that scripture exists to support our doctrines.
To be sure, some writings are focused on doctrinal questions. The letters to the Thessalonians are focused on teaching on the end times; Romans is focused on a host of theological issues centering around how it is that righteous person, both Jew and Greek, lives by faith. But this is never the whole story. Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets are not interested in laying down clues that theologians can later find and use to construct systematic theologies. The writings are always to some degree or another for a particular purpose to a particular group of people with a particular problem. It’s always going to be theological, but it’s not necessarily about constructing a system of abstract propositional and logical theological statements.
Now, let me be abundantly clear: I am not against propositional theological truth. I am not against systematics. What I am against is when we read the scriptures as if they were written only so that we could support our own doctrine and tear down the doctrines of the people we disagree with. (I’m also not against theological arguments.) It’s a way of reading ourselves into the text that prevents us from actually listening to the text on its own terms.
What Then is the Purpose?
Obviously, this is a huge topic, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give an actual answer to this question. The purpose of the bible is not to give you emotional support or guidance, although it can do that. The purpose of the bible is not to help you build a doctrinal system, although the bible is what you should use when you do that.
The best way to go forward is to do your best to let the individual writing itself set the agenda for your interpretation of it. Do not make the text answer questions it is not trying to answer. Try to figure out what questions the text is trying to answer and what questions the text is not trying to answer.
This is hard to do, but I think in general these kinds of questions will fall into one or more of three larger overarching questions:
1) Who is God and what is he like?
2) How does God relate to his people?
3) What does it mean to be the people of God?
These are not questions that are divorced from doctrinal/systematic questions, nor are they divorced from concerns about your own day-to-day life. It’s just a slightly different question.
And ultimately, this is going to point us to Christ, who is the ultimate topic of all of the scriptures. We primarily know God in Christ. In Christ we see a God who loves us and suffers and dies for us. That is how he relates to his people, by dying for them and thereby saving them from death and giving them new life. This means that the people of God are forgiven and redeemed because of Christ. They are his church, his bride, his one united body, who together wait for his return, when he will finally rescue his people from sin, death, and this fallen world. That’s really what it’s all about.