Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
Most people who read the Bible do so without a clearly defined goal. It is better to study the Bible with a more defined purpose in mind, for its subject matter and its intended meaning.
Study for Subject Matter One way to study the Bible is with specific questions in mind—for example, questions about doctrine, history, or moral and spiritual guidance.
Theological Doctrines and Teachings The Bible is above all a book that talks about God and His relationship to the world. What is God like? What is His relationship to His creation? What is His intended purpose for creation?
For Christians the Bible is the ultimate source for knowledge of theology (the person and nature of God), anthropology (the makeup of human beings), soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), Christology (the doctrine of the person of Christ), ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), and eschatology (the doctrine of the last things). As the only infallible source for doctrine, Christians scrutinize the Bible. However, great harm has been done by using the Bible as ·a source of “proof-texts” to support theological doctrines. The Bible should be studied not to support our belief system but to determine it. True respect for the Bible involves subjecting what we believe to its teaching. For example, we should not study NT passages dealing with Christian baptism to support our particular understanding of baptism but rather to see if our understanding is in harmony with the teaching of these passages. To the degree that our understanding is correct, the biblical texts will support it. We must judge our interpretation in light of the authors’ intended meaning.
In seeking to discover what the Bible teaches concerning a particular doctrine, two general principles can be mentioned. One is that important doctrines tend to be repeated. Things referred to only once or twice in the Bible are not as important as those teachings found repeatedly. For example, we read of baptism for the dead only once in the entire Bible (1 Cor. 15:29). Whatever Paul may have meant by this, it cannot be an important issue or doctrine. Building a theological system on it is foolish. Similarly, the vast importance some groups place on Peter as the rock upon which the church is built or on speaking in tongues, belies the fact that the former is referred to only once in the Bible (Matt. 16:17–19), and the latter occurs in only two NT books (Acts and 1 Corinthians). Because of relatively rare occurrences in the Bible their importance cannot be great. Far more important are the repeated teachings that love and service are to typify the Christian life, that salvation is by grace through faith, and that a day is coming when God will judge the world. Another principle is that the NT interprets the OT. Without denying that the OT throws light on the NT, it is clear that the more recent revelation reveals those aspects of the older revelation that are no longer operative (the ceremonial aspects of the law involving clean-unclean, regulations concerning circumcision, the Sabbath, and others) and those that have found their fulfillment (the promised successor of David is Jesus of Nazareth, the arrival of the Kingdom of God with the Spirit as its firstfruits, and so on).
Biblical History One of the most popular reasons people study the Bible is to learn about the historical events it records. The most important area involves the life and teachings of Jesus. Christians want to learn as much as they can about Jesus. The primary source for this is the four canonical Gospels. These are read to discover what we can learn about the birth of Jesus, the chronology of His life, His baptism and temptation, the calling of the disciples, His teaching and healing ministry, the confession of Peter and Jesus’ teaching of His forthcoming death, the transfiguration, Palm Sunday, the cleansing of the temple, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the arrest and trial, the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, resurrection appearances, ascension, and other historical events. Another popular area of historical investigation involves the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. There are numerous other areas of biblical history: the lives of biblical characters (from well-known people like Abraham, Moses, and John the Baptist to lesser-known people like Hagar and Jehoshaphat); various events (the call of Abraham; the exodus; the fall of Jerusalem; the return from exile). So much of the Bible is devoted to history (cp. Genesis-Exodus, Joshua-Esther, Matthew-Acts, also various portions of Leviticus-Deuteronomy, the prophets, and Paul’s letters) because biblical faith is largely founded on what God has done in history.
It must be remembered, however, that understanding what happened is not the same as understanding its full meaning. A clear example of this is the empty tomb on Easter morning. This event is not self-explanatory and is subject to more than one explanation. Jesus’ enemies did not deny the fact of the empty tomb, but they gave a different explanation to it than did the writers of the NT. The enemies said that Jesus’ body was stolen (Matt. 28:13–15; John 20:13–15). However, the fact of the empty tomb coupled with numerous appearances of the risen Christ over a period of 40 days provided a different interpretation: the tomb was empty because Jesus conquered death and rose triumphantly from the grave. In the study of biblical history the reader should seek to understand the meaning of historical facts. The biblical writers did not consider themselves mere reporters of facts but as authoritative interpreters of those facts. Thus, when reading a historical passage, we should seek to learn “why” the author recorded this historical event. We should not be content with understanding what happened but must seek to understand what the inspired authors sought to teach by the events they recorded.
Moral Teachings for Living Another reason people read the Bible is for moral and spiritual guidance. The Bible contains all one needs to know concerning what must be done to be saved and to live a life pleasing to God. Intuitively, following the plain and simple meaning of the biblical texts, people with normal intelligence read the Bible for themselves and are able to understand the Scriptures. Thus we speak of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture: all that is necessary for salvation and Christian living is clearly set forth in Scripture. One does not need to be a scholar or pastor to understand what to do to be saved or to live a life pleasing to God. This is understandable to the educated and uneducated alike. This reality makes possible in the fullest sense the priesthood of all believers. There are helpful principles that provide insight for interpreting the ethical teachings of the Bible.
The most helpful principle is to remember how ethical commands relate to the reception of God’s grace and forgiveness. Just as the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20) followed the deliverance from bondage in Egypt (Exod. 1–19), so the ethical teachings and commands of the Bible are addressed to people who are the recipients of God’s grace and salvation. The commands of Scripture are part of a covenant entered into purely on the basis of grace alone. We are saved by grace through faith for good works (Eph. 2:8–10). We love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The ethical teachings of the Bible are guides to those who have already experienced God’s gift of salvation. They are not a means to achieve that salvation.
Two additional, helpful principles are that we should pay most attention to those ethical teachings frequently repeated in the Bible, and that we should note those teachings that Jesus and the inspired writers of the Bible emphasized. So we find at the center of Scripture the command to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul, and one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5; Josh. 22:5; Mark 12:28–31; John 15:12; Rom. 13:8–10). The repetition of this command and the emphasis that it receives indicates that this is the essence of biblical morality and the heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Additional Areas of Information There are too many other subjects to give each of them a subheading. The Bible can be studied with respect to its geography; languages (the characteristics of biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; the grammar, style, and vocabulary of biblical writers); temples (tabernacle, Solomonic, second, and Herodian); the specific regulations associated with marriage, sacrifice, diseases, circumcision, Jewish festivals, clean and unclean foods; teachings concerning hospitality; the plants and animals of the Bible; figures of speech used in the Bible (puns, parables, hyperbole, poetry); dates of various biblical events; when the books of the Bible were written; military weapons and strategy; musical instruments referred to in the Psalms; and others.
The amount of information contained in the Bible is enormous. No one could study all the subjects and information found in it, even with several lifetimes to do so. Some of the subjects are more important than others. Thus it is wise to investigate those areas which are most important. We must be aware, however, that the study of the Bible for its information or facts is insufficient without the determination and appropriation of meaning.
Study of the Bible for its Meaning Where the meaning of the Bible is to be found has been a spirited debate over the past hundred years. Since all communication involves three fundamental components (the author/speaker; the text/speech; and the reader/hearer), it is not surprising that each of these components has been advocated as the determiner of biblical meaning.
Study of the Bible for the Inspired Author’s Meaning During the first half of the 20th century, a movement arose called the “new criticism” which maintained that texts such as the Bible are autonomous works of art whose meaning is totally independent of the original author and of the present-day reader. Thus what Paul meant in Romans or the meaning that a later reader gives to Romans is irrelevant; the text gives meaning to itself. However, whereas texts can convey meaning, they cannot “mean” anything. Meaning is a construction of thinking. Authors can think. Readers can think. A text, however, is an inanimate object (ink and paper) and thus cannot think or will a meaning. Therefore the meaning of a biblical text cannot be found in the ink or paper that make up a text but in either the human who thought and penned the thoughts or the one who reads it.
In the latter part of the 20th century a reader response emphasis became the dominant approach to interpretation. Here the reader is the one who determines the meaning of a text. He determines it not in the sense that he discovers the meaning of the original author of the text. Rather he gives the text its meaning. Thus it is, theoretically, perfectly acceptable to have different and even contradictory meanings ascribed to the same texts. The result of such an approach is that the reader, rather than being submissive to the text and its author, becomes their master, and what the biblical authors meant by their texts is considered irrelevant.
The more traditional understanding is that the author is the determiner of meaning and that readers should seek the meaning that the original authors intended when they wrote the texts. This is the basic presupposition of all communication: the speakers/authors determine the meaning of what they say/write. The fact that we seek to understand the meaning of Galatians with the help of Romans (not Revelation), the meaning of Acts with the help of Luke (not Plato’s Republic), the meaning of John with the help of 1 John (not Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls) witnesses to the fact that we want to know what the authors of Galatians, Acts, and John meant. The authors of Romans, Luke, and 1 John reveal this better than anyone else because they are the same authors writing at about the same time and on the same subject.
Role of the Holy Spirit in Interpretation The Bible teaches that both in its inception and its interpretation the Holy Spirit plays a major role. In understanding the Spirit’s role in the interpretation of the Bible, it is helpful to distinguish between obtaining a correct mental grasp of what the author meant by the text and becoming convinced of the significance or truthfulness of what he wrote. Whereas all people with reasonable intelligence can understand the meaning of Scripture (some non-Christians write excellent commentaries), apart from the conviction of the Holy Spirit the teachings of the Bible are essentially “foolishness” (1 Cor. 2:14). It is through the convicting work of the Spirit that the believer knows these teachings are in reality the word of God.
Through the centuries some readers of the Bible have sought to find a deeper meaning than the meaning the authors consciously intended. It is arrogant, however, to seek a supposedly deeper and more ultimate meaning than the divinely inspired author possessed. Any such “spiritual” interpretation must itself be tested (1 John 4:1) by Scripture. In practice these deeper meanings often prove false. We have no access to God’s revelation except through the willed meaning of the biblical authors, who are God’s authoritative spokesmen. Those who claim that God has given them a deeper meaning beyond that of the biblical authors indeed possess a different meaning than that of the authors, but that meaning is theirs, not God’s. See Inspiration of Scripture.
Importance of Genre Within the Bible we encounter numerous literary genres such as poetry, narrative, prophecy, proverbs, parables, letters, idioms, hyperbole, and others. Because the goal in studying each genre is the same—to understand the meaning of the biblical author—we need to know how these genres function. One does not interpret a love poem in the same way one interprets a medical report. The biblical writers expected their readers to understand how various genres function and the rules governing them. Some genres and the rules associated with them are:
Proverbs A proverb is a short, pithy saying usually in poetic form, expressing a wise observation concerning life. The book of Proverbs involves wise observations of life seen through the lens of the revelation of God. What makes biblical proverbs different from other proverbs is that they have been formulated and shaped through the filter of divine revelation. Writers of proverbs expect their readers to understand that proverbs teach general truths. They are not universal laws but allow for exceptions. Such exceptions do not, however, negate the general rule (cp. Prov. 1:33; 3:9–10; 10:3–4; 13:21; 22:6; Matt. 26:52; Luke 16:10).
Poetry The difference in poetic and narrative description can easily be seen by how they describe the same event. In Judg. 4 we have a narrative description of how Deborah and Barak led the people of Israel over the Canaanites led by Sisera. Chapter 5 is a poetic version of that victory. It is only in the poetic description of the battle that we find the portrayal of the earth shaking, the mountains quaking (5:4–5), and the stars fighting from heaven (5:20). As poetry (5:1 calls it a song) this imagery should not be taken literally, as their complete absence from chapter indicates. A similar narrative and poetic portrayal of another such victory is found in Exod. 14 and 15.
Prophecy For many readers prophecy is understood as the precise prediction of future events. Aside from the fact that much of prophecy deals less with prediction than with proclamation, the prophetic writers did not expect their readers to interpret their prophecies as reports for modern-day historical journals. Rather, they make considerable use of poetic or figurative language. When they refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. or a.d. 70, they are referring to an actual event, but frequently the language describing this is the language of poets, not of modern-day military historians.
This can be seen in the frequent use of cosmic terminology in prophecies of events subsequently fulfilled (e.g., Isa. 13:9–11 which refers to the destruction of Babylon; Jer. 4:23–26 which refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c.; Acts 2:17–21 which refers to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost). The purpose of such cosmic language is to indicate that God is about to act in a mighty way in history, and since God resides in the “heavens,” cosmic terminology is used to refer to his bringing predicted events to pass.
An additional rule involved in the interpretation of prophecy involves prophecies of judgment. Such prophecies always assume, even if not stated, that repentance may avert or delay the prophecy. This is clear from Jonah’s prophecy of judgment to the people of Nineveh in Jon. 3:4, its lack of fulfillment in 3:10, and Jonah’s reaction in 4:2 This principle is clearly stated in Jer. 18:7–8 (cp. also Ezek. 33:13–15). Other examples of such prophecies of judgment are found in Mic. 3:12 and Jer. 26:16–19. Thus such prophecies often function less as absolute, unchangeable predictions than as warnings and opportunities for repentance.
Parables Since parables are essentially brief or extended comparisons (similes or metaphors), a distinction must be made between the picture part of a parable and the meaning the parable is seeking to teach. Usually a parable seeks to convey a basic point of comparison, teaching one main point. Like any simile or metaphor, the details generally are not intended to be pressed. Details in a parable tend simply to add color to the story and create interest. On the other hand, if the original audience would have seen allegorical significance in such details, it is legitimate for the reader today to see them as well (cp. for example Mark 12:1–11 with Isa. 5:1–7).
In order to understand the main point of a parable, several questions serve as guides. (1) Who are the two main characters? This helps to focus attention on the main point of the parable. (2) What comes at the end of the parable? This rule (called “end stress”) recognizes that authors tend to emphasize the point they are making by how they end a story. (3) Who or what gets the most space in the parable? One tends to spend more time on the most important characters in the story. (4) What is found in direct discourse? The use of direct discourse in a story focuses the readers’ attention on what is being said. These questions indicate that the focus of attention in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16) is upon the owner and the first-hour workers and in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) on the father and the older brother.
Miscellaneous Genres Some other genres found in the Bible include idioms (the use of words in combination possessing a different meaning than the normal meaning of the individual words); narrative (the retelling of past events with the purpose of teaching a point); letters (what the writers meant by the individual words, the clauses in which these words appear, and the arguments created by these clauses); covenants (generally consisting of a prologue in which the covenant maker describes himself [the preamble], a description of his past graciousness [the historical prologue], stipulations of what the second party must do to remain in this covenantal relationship, references to witnesses of the covenant, a mandate for the regular reading of the covenant, a list of blessings and cursing based on the stipulations, and the oath by the second party); hyperbole and overstatement in which statements are exaggerated for emphasis, and so on. Every genre has rules that the writer understood. Even as one cannot understand what is going on in football without understanding the rules, so the present-day reader cannot understand what the biblical author meant without understanding the rules governing the genres he used.
Author’s Meaning and Present-day Application Since the biblical author is the determiner of the meaning of the biblical text, that meaning can never change because what the author meant is locked in history. However, what authors meant in the past often has implications they were unaware of. Thus what authors meant in the past includes not only their specific but also all the legitimate implications flowing from that meaning. Thus the command not to commit adultery (Exod. 20:14) includes such implications as not to lust (Matt. 5:28). Since these implications flow from the specific meaning intended by the author, what implications are legitimate is determined by the author when he wrote. A reader may discover these implications, but the author created them.
 Robert H. Stein, “Bible, Methods of Study,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 207–211.
Leave a Reply