Those who claim to have serious issues with the content of the Bible more than likely don’t actually have an issue with the biblical texts themselves. What they probably have a problem with is a particular interpretation of various biblical texts. Nothing can send a seeking unbeliever running for the hills of agnosticism quite like erroneous biblical interpretations. Many who doubt the reliability of the Bible base their criticisms on interpretations of the Bible rather than the texts themselves. I’ve heard pastor Landon Dowden say many times, “Many people don’t know what good preaching is because they have never heard it.” The same holds true for unbelievers who criticize the Bible as dated, irrelevant, and even corrupt. Many of these folks hold to these criticisms because they have never heard solid and true biblical interpretation.
The trouble here is that the reason many unbelievers have never heard solid and true biblical interpretation is because many Bible-believing Christians simply don’t know how to properly interpret the Bible. They are left to whatever and whoever fills the pulpit Sunday morning. And if your understanding of the Bible goes no further than what is preached Sunday morning in many churches, your understanding of the Bible will be weak at best. As a result of weak preaching in seemingly countless pulpits, it’s likely that hosts of Christians are not sure how to interpret the Bible. There are probably even some believers in healthy churches with robust gospel preaching that are just uncomfortable when it comes to interpreting the Bible. Then again, all of us shiver when we set to task to interpret Daniel or Revelation.
The average Christian doesn’t have the time or necessarily the academic energies to learn and apply the many technical aspects of biblical interpretation. But it doesn’t require a Ph.D in hermeneutics to properly interpret the Bible. While it is crucial to have at least a basic working knowledge of historical and literary context and genre awareness, there are more basic devotional aspects of biblical interpretation that can go a long way to helping us better interpret the Bible.
In his book, 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Robert Plummer puts forth five devotional practices for interpreting the Bible that I believe are great first steps in most accurately and helpfully communicating what the Bible actually says.
1. Approach the Bible in Prayer
Biblical interpretation begins and ends with humility. We begin by admitting we need help in understanding and obedience. We end by admitting our interpretation, not the text itself, may be wrong. Prayer is the ultimate expression of humility, so it is the most logical place to begin. Plummer writes, “As we approach the Bible, we need to realize that sin affects all of our being–our emotions, wills, and rational faculties. We can easily deceive ourselves or be deceived by others. We need the Holy Spirit to instruct and guide us. Thus, prayer is the essential starting point for any study of the Bible.”
2. Read the Bible as a Book that Points to Jesus
Jesus himself alludes to this in Luke 24:25-27 and John 5:39-40. Without resorting to allegory, it is important the the Bible reader understand the kind of book he is reading. He is reading a book that either anticipates, describes, or explains the person and work of Christ at every point. However, we must strike a healthy balance here. Plummer writes, “If we study or teach any part of the Bible without reference to Jesus the Savior, we are not faithful interpreters.” But then he qualifies, “Of course, not every text points to Jesus in the same way.” Once we realize the Bible is Christocentric, we will become better interpreters.
3. Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
Ah, this is big. Many Christians are lost in what a text means when the answer to their confusion is found in another biblical text. Whenever appropriate we should be careful to allow Scripture to speak for and interpret itself. Plummer posits, “If we believe that all the Bible is inspired by God and thus noncontradictory, passages of Scripture that are less clear should be interpreted with reference to those that are more transparent in meaning.” Heresy and just plain confusion is often the result of lazy Bible study. Allowing the clearer passages to help interpret the more murky passages will help you arrive at a more reliable conclusion.
4. Meditate on the Bible
The Bible isn’t an ordinary book. It contains truth and life. Biblical meditation serves biblical interpretation because the more time you spend with a text the more likely you are to understand its meaning. Plummer writes, “While it is certainly beneficial to read large portions of Scripture in one sitting, no biblical diet is complete without extended rumination on a smaller portion of text.” Instead of skimming through large portions of Scripture, make it a regular practice to mull over a text for an extended period of time. Ask questions of the text and allow the text to ask questions of you. Dwelling with a text will produce more faithful interpretation.
5. Approach the Bible in Faith and Obedience
My wife, Erica, and I were talking just last night about the disparity in those who are gifted interpreters of the Bible, yet reject it as inspired truth. Skeptical scholars like Bart Erhman come to mind. It is a sad reality that a person can rightly interpret a biblical text without responding to it in faith. Satan himself is a fine interpreter of Scripture. The point here is that right interpretation in itself is not the goal. Wholehearted, passionate devotion to God as he has revealed himself in his Word is the aim of biblical interpretation. A life of holiness and consecrated worship is the goal of hermeneutics. We don’t merely want to understand Scripture correctly; we want to hide the Word of the Lord deep in our hearts, so that it might produce a harvest of fruit.
Plummer concludes, “Responding with faith and obedience, specifically through difficulties, seems to be one of God’s chosen means of maturing his people. As we encounter trials in life and meet those difficulties trusting in God and his Word, we can expect the Lord to conform us more into the image of his Son.” The goal of sharpening hermeneutical skills is not to be puffed up with knowledge, but conformed to the image of Christ.
Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.