The Bible is a fascinating book. Passed down through the ages, it remains a reliable guide for the church’s faith and practice. The Bible, though, is more than a guide. It is holy Scripture—that font of truth and wellspring of life, a source of nourishment for all.
If the Bible is “holy Scripture,” and if the Bible is God’s Word, then it follows that Christians should take great care to read it faithfully (2 Tim. 2:15). But how can one go about doing this? After all, the Bible can be fairly difficult to understand. As a matter of fact, even sincere Christians disagree among themselves about what certain biblical texts mean. How, then, can we read the Bible rightly? Are there principles we could apply? While there are many things I could say, I will offer three brief items below that will, I believe, help you in your own endeavor to read the Bible faithfully.
First, know the text. This might sound obvious, but I’m not sure it’s always taken seriously. For example, people often approach a biblical passage without ever considering the original context in which it belongs. It’s important that, when you interpret a Bible verse, you pay attention to that verse’s context. The reason is because words, phrases, and verses derive meaning from the surrounding words, phrases, and verses. In other words, each verse must be interpreted in light of the larger passage, and each passage must be interpreted in light of surrounding passages, and so on (the reverse is true as well).
One important component of knowing the text (and its context) is to keep in mind the text’s genre. When I say “genre,” what I mean is the type of text you are interpreting. For example, when you read a verse from, say, Proverbs, you need to remember that this is part of the wisdom genre of the Bible. If you forget this, then your interpretation will almost certainly be skewed.
If, for example, you interpret Prov. 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”) as a promise and not as a proverb, then you may end up in despair. After all, it’s simply not the case that every child, though he or she was brought up in a Christian home, will remain faithful to the Lord. So, is Prov. 22:6 false? By no means. If we understand Prov. 22:6 in light of its genre, we will realize that it does not intend to make a promise that is universally true but only an assertion that is generally true, namely, that a child who is raised up in a godly way will—all things being equal—remain faithful to the Lord.
Moreover, the Bible is full of many different genres (e.g., prose, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, letters, and apocalyptic). And each genre must be interpreted on its own terms. That is, one should not interpret a poetic text as if it were literal prose. If we are to interpret the Bible faithfully, then, we need to dig beneath the text, tending to the important question of genre.
Second, know yourself. Every interpreter comes to the Bible with preconceived notions and presuppositions. We are the product of our culture, family background, personal history, etc. These realities have shaped us into the particular people we are today. Thus, everyone reads the Bible from a certain perspective, a particular angle and point of view. As finite creatures, we obviously lack a God’s-eye point of view.
And yet, this does not mean we cannot know biblical truth; neither does it imply the Bible can mean just anything we want. What it does mean, though, is that we must be mindful of those assumptions that we bring to the biblical text and submit them to the truth contained therein. While we cannot free ourselves from having presuppositions (an impossible task), we can nonetheless work to adopt presuppositions that are conducive for a faithful interpretation of the Bible. To do this, one might consider asking questions like, “What were the core assumptions of the biblical authors?” and “How did they approach the sacred text?”If I may be so bold to say: Perhaps we moderns could learn a thing or two from St. Paul on how to read holy Scripture!
Third, bridge the gap. It is important to recognize that God’s Word has something significant to say to your context. Thus, you must bridge the gap between the biblical text and your own situation in life. Reading the Bible faithfully entails reading it from the standpoint of faith and faithfulness to God. As is often said, one should not read the Bible merely for information but also for transformation. Indeed, the goal of interpretation is to link the original context of the Bible to the local context of your everyday living. This is a deeply personal endeavor, and at times the application of a biblical verse will look different for different people.
Take, for example, the fundamental Christian belief that “Jesus is Lord and Savior” (Rom. 10:9; Phil. 2:11). This historic Christian claim is pretty straightforward – Jesus, very God of very God, the One Savior through whom all things were made, is the loving, Supreme Master of all things and of all people. When this truth is fleshed out in real life, it may look different for each person. For instance, if a Christian sister is suffering from low self-esteem due to the harshness of her authoritarian employer, this truth that “Jesus is Lord and Savior of all” would provide immense comfort, exalting her to a fresh awareness of her true worth. And yet, if this truth were sincerely received by the harsh employer himself, it would have the opposite effect. It would humble, not exalt, him to re-interpret what his own authority means in light of a higher Authority. It would lead him to humble repentance. The point is this: To truly understand the scriptural text, you must apply it to your life’s specific and unique context.
All of this requires that we baptize our readings in prayer. This is of the utmost importance, for it will allow us to adopt a posture of humility and submission before God. In fact, I dare to suggest that such a posture is necessary if we want to read the Bible faithfully.
 So argued Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall [London: Bloomsbury, 2013], 318-320).
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