A few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.
At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah, John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.
In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?
What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.
In conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.