I think we would all agree that correctly understanding Scripture is a difficult and often puzzling task. Think about these areas:
1) The commands of God appear to be absolute, yet they are set in such diverse historical contexts that we are hard-pressed to see how they can be a universal standard.
2) There are many passages that seem all too ambiguous.
3) We acknowledge the crucial role of the Holy Spirit, yet studying is surely necessary to understand what the Spirit has inspired.
4) The message of Scripture is conveyed within a complex literary landscape with varied genres and over a huge span of time.
5) Proper interpretation requires the interpreter’s personal freedom, yet that freedom comes with considerable risks of bias and distortion.
With those things and more in mind, we need a well-thought-out approach to interpreting the Bible. Without an organized approach or means to understanding, we would not be able to comprehend anything. So throughout this study, we want to establish, explain, and demonstrate guidelines and methods to guide those who want to understand Scripture correctly.
What do we bring to the table? We as readers of the Bible are not by nature neutral and objective. We must realize that just as the biblical text arose within historical, personal processes and circumstances, so interpreters are people in the midst of their personal circumstances and situations. People understand their world on the basis of what they already know or have experienced. No one comes to the task of understanding as an objective observer. All interpreters bring their own preunderstanding and presuppositions, and these affect the ways they understand as well as the conclusions they draw.
Preunderstanding refers to all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail. This includes specific experiences and previous encounters with the text that tend to make us assume that we already understand it (i.e., Noah bringing 2 of every kind of animal & Joseph’s coat “of many colors”). This causes us as readers to stand over the Word of God and determine what it means, rather than placing ourselves under that Word, seeking diligently to determine what God means in the text. This preunderstanding can come from familiarity with the text or the culture or family in which we live. However, we are looking for what God is saying and not what anyone else is saying.
What about presuppositions? These are related to our overall view of the Bible. Our preunderstandings may change, but our presuppositions should not. What are they or what should they be?
1) The Bible is the Word of God. Although God worked through people to produce it, it is nonetheless inspired by the Holy Spirit and is God’s Word to us.
2) The Bible is trustworthy and true.
3) God has entered into human history; thus the supernatural does occur.
4) The Bible is not contradictory; it is unified, yet diverse. Nevertheless, God is bigger than we are, and he is not always easy to comprehend. Thus the Bible also has a tension and mystery to it.
With all of this in mind, we approach the text through faith and in the Spirit. We want objectivity within the framework of our presuppositions. So we prevent our preunderstanding, our culture, our familiarity, or our laziness from obscuring the meaning that God has intended for us in the text.
Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments and make sure to check back each week for the rest of this look at interpreting the Bible.