Bible Interpreting the Way Your English Teachers Taught You
(even if they were atheists)
by GK Werner
The Bible is much more difficult to believe than it is to interpret.
Conversation with people who say the Bible can be interpreted many different ways usually reveals that they just don't want to believe the Bible says what it says. If they read the Bible at all, they read a verse here, a verse there, another verse somewhere else; and instead of using critical reading skills to determine the author's meaning, they interpret Scripture to mean what they already believe (which is no way to read anything at all). More often than not, these same people discredit the Bible's veracity even while quoting it.. Isn't it intellectually dishonest to claim that an author maintains something he or she does not, and then proceed to debunk it. That wouldn't fly in my students' argument papers for my college English composition classes. It's a logical fallacy called a straw-man argument. Why should the Bible be treated differently? It needs to be read the same way as any other document--any news story, history text, biography, or letter from a friend. So how do we use critical reading skills to interpret Scripture? Here's what I teach as an English instructor.
Interpretation is a step in the critical reading process that is taught in English classes (or should be):
Observation = What does it say?
Interpretation = What does it mean?
Analysis = What is its thesis? Its purpose? What are its main points? How is it all supported? etc.
Evaluation = What is its worth?
Application = How do I use it--or don't I?
The interpretation step needs to be continuously and closely cross-checked with the observation step. Also, to paraphrase Dr. David Reagan of The Christ in Prophecy Journal (http://www.lamblion.us/), if the text makes sense, don't look for any other sense or you'll get nonsense.
Did you know that the Bible says there is no God, even though the Bible claims to be written by God (2 Tim 3:16)? Does the Bible contradict itself? Check out Psalm 14:1: "The fool has said in his heart, 'there is no God'." To borrow an old business proverb relating success to location, there are three keys to interpretation:
Words and phrases need to be interpreted within the verse, the passage, the chapter, the book, the Bible's other books, and the Bible in its entirety. Understanding is further enhanced by examining the historical, linguistic, and cultural context. Also, since God certainly does not contradict Himself, difficult, more obscure passages must be interpreted in light of the Bible's clear, straight forward statements--not the other way around.
There is also something called esoteric interpretation. This form of interpretation is not based on the above criteria (although I have worked with fellow English teachers whose instruction incorporates it mostly out of laziness). This is an anything goes interpretation based on the reader's beliefs, the world's philosophy of relative truth, or someone (especially in the cults) who claims special, divine powers of interpretation or reliance on supernatural authority such as spirits or aliens. Spiritualizing the plain sense meaning of Scripture began with Augustine and others hundreds of years after the New Testament events took place. Often for political reasons and to strengthen the church in Rome, they began teaching that the Bible was largely symbolic; a teaching that continues to this day. For example, my father was taught that Israel has been permanently set aside by God, and that all prophecy related to Israel will be fulfilled by the Church which has taken its place, that the Bible used Israel symbolically for the Church. Then in 1948, miraculously against the most impossible odds imaginable, Israel became a nation again and my father witnessed, as we all have since, one 'end times' prophecy after another related to Israel actually happening to Israel, not the Church. Boom! Hard to argue for esoteric interpretation when the plain sense meaning of Bible prophecy is being fulfilled in the news.
Of course, there is symbolism in the Bible, all forms of figurative language in fact. But did you know that most of the Bible's symbolism is explained by God in nearby verses? For example, the description in Revelation 1:12-16 is explained in Revelation 1:20; Daniel explained the king's dreams to him in Dan 2 and 4; and Jesus often explained His parables to His disciples. And besides, most of the Bible's figurative language is not difficult to figure out. We use figurative language every day with no problem at all. Can you find it in my first paragraph? Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11) Even people who never read the Bible know Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. Many people even know that the Bible claims that Jesus died to purchase our forgiveness and give us eternal life. What's not to get in that verse if you read it in context? If you know something about sheep, Jesus' metaphor becomes even more meaningful.
Now here's where your English teachers won't help you one bit. This is a little strange. Why do bright, perfectly rational, normally adept critical readers suddenly lose all common sense and reason when they open a Bible? True, many people have been taught that there is some special way to read the Bible or that only certain people like pastors, rabbis, and priests know how. But it's more than that. And this should be the scary part: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." (I Cor 1:18). Are you perishing?
But here's the good news--and I do mean the Good News! Unlike any other ancient document, we can ask the Bible's author for clarification. He's alive. And you know what else? Even if you don't know whether or not to trust Jesus that he is God in the flesh (I John 4:1-3), that he died in your place and rose from the dead (I Cor 15:3,4), you can still ask the Bible's living author to show you the truth. Ask sincerely with an open mind and you'll be surprised at the result. God says that those who diligently seek Him will find Him (Prov 8:17, Isaiah 55:6, Jeremiah 29:13, Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9, Heb 11:6, Deuteronomy 4:29). Just ask!
And once you do believe that God demonstrated his love toward you in that even while you were still a sinner (which we all are, Rom 3:23), Christ died for you (Rom 5:8), you will instantly be given eternal life (Rom 6:23) and the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13,14). And guess what. The Holy Spirit is our teacher (John 14:16, 17 and 26). He will begin teaching you as you prayerfully read God's Word.
But don't take my word for it, or any English teacher's. Do what the Bereans did (Acts 17:11). Check it our for yourself.
In context of course!
Copyright © 2014 by G. K. Werner. All rights reserved.