5 Steps to Understanding Any Biblical Text: The Interpretive Journey from “Grasping God’s Word”
How can we know what the Bible means?
This extract from Grasping God’s Word may serve as a quick guide to “the interpretive journey.” This is a journey we must take — across the barriers of time, culture, language, and other differences — if we are to rightly understand the Bible. Read on as authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays sketch the interpretive journey before us.
For a limited time, Grasping God’s Word is 33% off at Logos Bible Software when you use source code GRASPING. Act fast because the deal ends on June 17, 2015.
Many of us want to be able to dig deeper into [God’s] Word. We want to see more and to understand more of the biblical text. We also want to know that we understand the Bible correctly. That is, we want to be confident that we can pull the actual truth out of a text and not just develop an arbitrary, fanciful, or incorrect interpretation. Our book is designed for such people.
The process of interpreting and grasping the Bible is similar to embarking on a journey. Reading the text thoroughly and carefully lies at the beginning of the journey. From this careful reading we become able to determine what the passage meant in the biblical context — that is, what it meant to the biblical audience.
Often, however, when we try to apply this meaning directly to ourselves, we run into problems. We are separated from the biblical audience by culture and customs, language, situation, and a vast expanse of time. These differences form a barrier — a river that separates us from the text and that often prohibits us from grasping the meaning of the text for ourselves.
If that were not enough, the Old Testament widens the river by adding another major interpretive barrier that separates us from the audience. Between the Old Testament biblical audience and Christian readers today lies a change in covenant. We as New Testament believers are under the new covenant, and we approach God through the sacrifice of Christ. The Old Testament people, however, were under the old covenant, and for them the law was central. In other words, the theological situation for the two groups is different. There is a covenant barrier between the Old Testament audience and us because we are under different covenants.
Thus, the river between the Old Testament text and us consists not only of culture, language, situation, and time, but also of covenant. We have much more in common with the New Testament audience; yet even in the New Testament, the different culture, language, and specific situations can present a formidable barrier to our desire to grasp the meaning of the text. The river is often too deep and too wide simply to wade across.
As a result, today’s Christian is often uncertain about how to interpret much of the Bible. How should we understand Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits wearing a garment made of two types of material? Does this mean that obedient Christians should wear only 100 percent cotton clothes? In Judges 6:37 Gideon puts out a fleece in order to confirm what God has told him. Does this mean that we should put out fleeces when we seek God’s leading?
Passages in the New Testament are not always much clearer. For example, Peter walks on the water in Matthew 14:29. Does this mean that we should attempt to walk on water in our obedience to Christ? If not, what does it mean and how can we apply it to our lives today? Even if we cannot walk on water, how do we cross the river that separates us from the text?
Any attempt to interpret and to apply the Bible involves trying to cross the river. While often unconscious of their interpretive method, many Christians today nonetheless frequently employ an intuitive or feels-right approach to interpretation. If the text looks as if it could be applied directly, then they attempt to apply it directly. If not, then they take a spiritualizing approach to the meaning — an approach that borders on allegorizing the biblical text (which shows little or no sensitivity to the biblical context). Or else they simply shrug their shoulders and move on to another passage, ignoring the meaning of the text altogether.
Such approaches will never land us safely on the other side of the river. Those using the intuitive approach blindly wade out into the river, hoping that the water is not more than knee deep. Sometimes they are fortunate and stumble onto a
The process of interpreting and grasping the Bible is similar to embarking on a journey. Reading the text thoroughly and carefully lies at the beginning of the sandbar, but often they step out into deep water, and they end up washed ashore somewhere downstream. Those who spiritualize, by contrast, try to jump the river in one grand leap, but they also end up washed ashore downstream with their intuitive buddies. Shrugging or ignoring a passage is to remain on the far side of the river and simply to gaze across without even attempting to cross.
Many Christians are admittedly uncomfortable with such approaches, recognizing the somewhat willy-nilly methodology and the extreme subjectivity involved, but they continue to use it because it is the only method they know. How do we move from the world of the biblical audience to the world of today?
This book [Grasping God’s Word] addresses how to cross over that river into the world of today. We need a valid, legitimate approach to the Bible, one that is not based strictly on intuition and feeling. We need an approach that derives meaning from within the text, but one that also crosses over to the situation for today’s Christian.
We also need a consistent approach, one that can be used on any passage. Such an approach should eliminate the habit of skipping over texts and surfing along through the Bible looking for passages that might apply. A consistent approach should allow us to dig into any passage with a method to determine the meaning of that text for us today. We need an approach that does not leave us stranded on the banks of the interpretive river and one that does not dump us into the river to be washed ashore downstream. We need a way to study the Bible to cross over the river with validity and accuracy. Our goal in this book is to take you on the journey across the river, to transport you from the text and the world of the biblical audience to a valid understanding and application of the text for Christians today.
BASICS OF THE JOURNEY
Our goal is to grasp the meaning of the text God has intended. We do not create meaning out of a text; rather, we seek to find the meaning that is already there. However, we recognize that we cannot apply the meaning for the ancient audience directly to us today because of the river that separates us (culture, time, situation, covenant, etc.). Following the steps of the Interpretive Journey provides us with a procedure that allows us to take the meaning for the ancient audience and to cross over the river to determine a legitimate meaning for us today.
This journey works on the premise that the Bible is a record of God’s communication of himself and his will to us. We revere the Bible and treat it as holy because it is the Word of God and because God reveals himself to us through this Word. Many texts in the Bible are specific, concrete, revelatory expressions of broader, universal realities or theological principles. While the specifics of a particular passage may only apply to the particular situation of the biblical audience, the theological principles revealed in that text are applicable to all of God’s people at all times. The theological principle, therefore, has meaning and application both to the ancient biblical audience and to Christians today.
Because the theological principle has meaning and application to both audiences, it functions as a bridge spanning the river of differences. Rather than blindly wading out into the river, foolishly attempting to jump across the river in one short hop, or wishfully gazing at the other shore without ever crossing, we can safely cross over the river on the bridge that the theological principle provides. Constructing this principlizing bridge will be one of the critical steps in our Interpretive Journey.
Thus, our journey starts with a careful reading of the text. Our final destination is to grasp the meaning of the text so that it changes our lives. It is an exciting trip, but one that requires hard work. There are no easy shortcuts.
The basic Interpretive Journey involves five steps:
Step 1: Grasping the Text in Their Town
Question: What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
The first part of Step 1 is to read the text carefully and observe it. In Step 1, try to see as much as possible in the text. Look, look, and look again, observing all that you can. Scrutinize the grammar and analyze all significant words. Likewise, study the historical and literary contexts. How does your passage relate to those that precede it and those that follow it?
After completing all of this study, synthesize the meaning of the passage for the biblical audience into one or two sentences. That is, write out what the passage meant for the biblical audience. Use past-tense verbs and refer to the biblical audience. For example:
- God commanded the Israelites in Joshua 1 to . . .
- Paul exhorted the Ephesians to . . .
- Jesus encouraged his disciples by . . .
Be specific. Do not generalize or try to develop theological principles yet.
Step 2: Measuring the Width of the River to Cross
Question: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
As mentioned above, the Christian today is separated from the biblical audience by differences in culture, language, situation, time, and often covenant. These differences form a river that hinders us from moving straight from meaning in their context to meaning in ours. The width of the river, however, varies from passage to passage. Sometimes it is extremely wide, requiring a long, substantial bridge for crossing. Other times, however, it is a narrow creek that we can easily hop over. It is obviously important to know just how wide the river is before we start trying to construct a principlizing bridge across it.
In Step 2 you will take a good hard look at the river and determine just how wide it is for the passage you are studying. In this step you look for significant differences between our situation today and the situation of the biblical audience. If you are studying an Old Testament passage, also be sure to identify those significant theological differences that came as a result of the life and work of Jesus Christ.
In addition, whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament, try to identify any unique aspects of the situation of your passage. For example, in Joshua 1:1 – 9, the people of Israel are preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses has just died and Joshua has been appointed to take his place. In this passage God speaks to Joshua to encourage him to be strong and faithful in the upcoming conquest of the land. What are the differences? We are not entering or conquering the Promised Land. We are not the new leaders of the nation of Israel. We are not under the old covenant.
Step 3: Crossing the Principlizing Bridge
Question: What is the theological principle in this text?
This is perhaps the most challenging step. In it you are looking for the theological principle or principles that are reflected in the meaning of the text you identified in Step 1. Remember that this theological principle is part of the meaning. Your task is not to create the meaning but to discover the meaning intended by the author. As God gives specific expressions to specific biblical audiences, he is also giving universal theological teachings for all of his people through these same texts.
To determine the theological principle, first recall the differences you identified in Step 2. Next, try to identify any similarities between the situation of the biblical audience and our situation. For example, consider Joshua 1:1 – 9 again. Recall, of course, the differences that we identified in Step 2. But then note the similarities between the biblical situation and our own. We are also the people of God, in covenant relationship (new covenant); while we are not the leaders of Israel, nonetheless many of us are in leadership positions in the church; we are not invading the Promised Land, but we are seeking to obey the will of God and to accomplish what he has commanded us to do.
After reviewing the differences and identifying the similarities, return to the meaning for the biblical audience that you described in Step 1 and try to identify a broader theological principle reflected in the text, but also one that relates to the similarities between us and the biblical audience. In essence, the theological principle is the same as the “theological message” or the “main theological point” of the passage. (We will discuss in more detail how to develop theological principles in chapter 10.) We will use this theological principle as the principlizing bridge by which we can cross over the river of differences.
We can summarize the criteria for formulating the theological principle with the following:
The principle should be reflected in the text. The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation. The principle should not be culturally bound. The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture. The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.
Write out the theological principle (or principles) in one or two sentences. Use present-tense verbs.
Step 4: Consult the Biblical Map
Question: How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
During this step you must enter the parts-whole spiral. That is, you reflect back and forth between the text and the teachings of the rest of Scripture. Is your principle consistent with the rest of Scripture? Do other portions of Scripture add insight or qualification to the principle? If your principle is valid, it ought to “fit” or “correlate” with the rest of the Bible.
If you are studying an Old Testament passage, consulting the biblical map (Step 4) is especially important, for here you will run your theological principle through the grid of the New Testament, looking for what the New Testament adds to that principle or how the New Testament modifies it. Keep in mind that we read and interpret the Old Testament as Christians. That is, although we believe that the Old Testament is part of God’s inspired Word to us, we do not want to ignore the cross and thus interpret and apply this literature as if we were Old Testament Hebrews. We affirm that we are New Testament Christians, and we will interpret the Old Testament from that vantage point.
Thus at the end of this step, sometimes you will need to reword your theological principle slightly to ensure that it fits with the rest of Scripture. Don’t ignore the elements you initially drew on in Step 3, but now fine-tune your principle if it needs it.
Step 5: Grasping the Text in Our Town
Question: How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
In Step 5 we apply the theological principle to the specific situation of individual Christians in the church today. We cannot leave the meaning of the text stranded in an abstract theological principle. We must now grapple with how we should respond to that principle in our town. How does it apply in real-life situations today?
While for each passage there will usually be only a few (and often only one) theological principles relevant for all Christians today, there will be numerous applicational possibilities. This is because Christians today find themselves in many different specific situations. Each of us will grasp and apply the same theological principle in slightly different ways, depending on our current life situation and where we are in our relationship with God. In our illustration, we have tried to show the different applications possible by showing different individuals traveling on different streets. (The application step will be discussed in much more detail in chapter 13.)
So, the Interpretive Journey as a whole looks like this:
- Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the original audience?
- Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
- Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?
- Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
- Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
An Example — Joshua 1:1 – 9
We have mentioned Joshua 1:1 – 9 several times already. Let’s make the formal trip from this Old Testament passage to life today to illustrate how the Interpretive Journey works.
The passage is as follows:
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them — to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates — all the Hittite country — to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.
“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Step 1: What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
The Lord commanded Joshua, the new leader of Israel, to draw strength and courage from God’s empowering presence, to be obedient to the law of Moses, and to meditate on the law so that he would be successful in the conquest of the Promised Land.
Step 2: What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
We are not leaders of the nation Israel (although some of us may be leaders in the church). We are not embarking on the conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land. We are not under the old covenant of law.
Step 3: What is the theological principle in this text?
To be effective in serving God and successful in the task to which he has called us, we must draw strength and courage from his presence. We must also be obedient to God’s Word, meditating on it constantly.
Step 4: How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
The rest of the Bible consistently affirms that God’s people can draw strength and courage from his presence. In the New Testament believers experience God’s presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit rather than through his presence in the tabernacle. Likewise, throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament God’s people are exhorted to pay close, obedient attention to his Word.
Step 5: How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?
There are numerous possible applications. Here are a few suggested ones:
- Spend more time meditating on God’s Word by listening to Christian music as you ride in your car.
- If God calls you to a new, scary ministry, such as teaching fourth-grade Sunday school, then be strengthened and encouraged by his empowering presence. Be obedient, keeping a focus on the Scriptures.
- If you are in a church leadership position, realize that successful Christian leadership requires strength and courage that flows from the presence of God.
The Journey and Grasping God’s Word
The Interpretive Journey is actually a blueprint for this book [Grasping God’s Word]. In part 1 we have looked first at an overview of Bible translation and how we got the English Bible (chapter 1). In the next three chapters, we will focus on how to observe and read the biblical text carefully. We start with smaller, simpler units of text (chapter 3) and then move on to more complex and longer units of text (chapters 4 and 5).
In part 2 we spend time discussing contexts, both theirs (the ancient audience) and ours (the modern readers). We first explore historical and cultural contexts (chapter 6). Next we probe into the issue of preunderstanding (i.e., our context) in chapter 7. Then in chapter 8 we examine literary context. We wrap up this unit by learning how to do word studies within these contexts (chapter 9). All of these chapters in part 1 and part 2 give us skills necessary to get our feet firmly planted into Step 1.
Part 3 focuses on the theory needed to identify and construct the principlizing bridge, to cross over the river of differences, and to grasp the meaning of the text in a way that changes our lives in the world today. Chapter 10 deals with what meaning is and who controls it (author or reader?). Chapter 11 delves into some issues related to the theological principle and the concept of meaning. Are there deeper levels of meaning? Is there one meaning or numerous meanings for a passage? Chapter 12 then explores the role of the Holy Spirit in this whole interpretive process. Step 5 (application) is the focus of chapter 13, helping us to move on from head knowledge to actual life-changing behavior. In other words, while in chapter 2 we have introduced the Journey to you, the rest of part 1 as well as part 2 and part 3 expand on the Interpretive Journey, describing in more detail the interpretive issues you will face along the way.
In part 4 we focus on how to take the Interpretive Journey within the New Testament. In this unit we leave the theoretical discussions of part 3 and move into the actual practice of interpreting and applying the New Testament. We teach you how to take the Journey with passages from different types or genres of New Testament literature. Chapters 14 – 17 cover, respectively, New Testament Letters, the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. These chapters pull together everything you learned in parts 1 – 3, teaching you how to apply your new skills to the New Testament.
Finally, part 5 addresses some of the specific challenges and opportunities of interpreting and applying the Old Testament. First, in the introduction, we refine the steps of the journey to fit the Old Testament situation more closely. Then, as in part 4, we teach you how to take the Interpretive Journey with passages from the different types of Old Testament genres. Chapters 18 – 22 sharpen your tools for grasping passages from the entire range of Old Testament literature: narrative, law, poetry, prophetic literature, and wisdom literature.
Are you ready to move forward into the exciting realm of interpretation and application? There are lots of interesting biblical passages ahead of you. Work hard! The rewards are great.
Don’t miss the deal: Grasping God’s Word is 33% off at Logos Bible Software when you use source code GRASPING. The deal ends on June 17, 2015.