The nature of Scriptures as the divinely inspired Word of God remains a concept that is difficult for a great many people, even amidst the Christian faith. It’s perhaps not that terribly surprising. The reason why is because the Bible itself can be difficult to read, particularly if one does not know how to read it.
Now this is not meant to be a condescending statement or an insulting thought. It is simply meant to express a reality. Literate and educated, people are trained from the earliest of ages to read, which is, hopefully a passion that carries on through the remainder of their lives. Yet, what they’re trained to read differs from Scripture. Even considering historic literature, there must be a recognition that there is a fundamental difference that exists between the Bible and any other book that has been written. This, in turn, reminds the reader that they have to approach it in a different way than they might otherwise read a book.
Once this is understood and accepted a great deal of confusion is cleared up, liberating the reader from their own preconceived notions and biases which might have, up to that point, held them back. In a sense they unlock the Scripture, not because the Word of God is somehow closed off or hidden, but because the reader is now forced to look at the words offered in a different light, in a different manner. The core problem is that this isn’t easily arrived. It involves training the oneself, considering basic principles which are necessary but that are not necessarily intuitive.
How then does one begin this process? What do they do? How should one look at and reflect upon the Word of God in order to derive the meaning from it? These are the core questions which the reader must ask themselves before they even begin the process of delving into the Word, and it involves recognizing some basic concepts as they do.
The Bible Isn’t A Self-Help Manual
First and foremost, the reader must recognize that the Scriptures are not a self-help manual. They are not written that way, nor should they be understood that way. In fact, there is an incredible danger when one opens up the words of Scripture believing that or believing that it is somehow centered around them. The reason why is because they then have a tendency to make it all about them. They then take verses, as if they exist outside of the context of the passage, shaping and molding them to fit their own needs and purposes.
Christ himself warns against this in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel as he looks to those rulers of the people and says to them that they search the Scriptures believing that through them they will have eternal life. For them, the Word of God was an instruction manual, it was a self-help manual, teaching them nothing more than to live with piety so that they might live and act in a proper manner. Yet, this was an incorrect way of considering the Word of God. Rather, they needed to understand it as being about God, and His redemption plan through Christ Jesus, understanding that all Scriptures bore witness of him. (Jn. 5:39-40) In this sense, the Bible isn’t about the reader, it is about Christ.
The Scriptures are God’s means of revealing Himself to mankind, who He is, and the work which He is doing in the world. He does this by directing the focus and the attention to the visible image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) He is the only begotten son of God, begotten before all worlds, and it is belief in him that brings everlasting life. (Jn 3:16) This points to the Scriptures then being about Christ because it is he who makes God known, (Jn. 1:18) the way, the truth and the life, the only way to the Father. (Jn. 14:16)
What this then allows for is, through faith, through the adoption which occurs in faith, for the individual to come into relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This then, allows for the individual to frame their life according to God’s will. The Christian, the disciple of Christ, is intended to imitate God, (Eph. 5:1) to purify themselves just as Christ is pure. (1 Jn. 3:3) If this is the case, the divine revelation of God carries specific implications. It is, after all, good for all teaching, for reproof and correction, for instruction in righteousness that the children of God may be equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Through a greater knowledge of Christ the individual comes to a greater understanding of God, of who He is, what He has done, and what it is that He desires. This, in turn, has very specific implications for the life of the believer. It transforms them and creates within them the desire to share the good news of God’s grace, love, and mercy. Scriptures provide that means as one goes forth into all nations, teaching to observe all which Christ himself commanded. (Matt. 28:19-20) It is Scripture which allows for them to do so in truth. Rather than a subjective oral tradition, or a human book that is subject to change they have the enduring Word of the Lord, inspired by the Spirit and preserved through the ages.
Context is King
What this means is that the Scriptures must be read in a very specific manner, one which understands what they are and respects that. After all, if it is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity, what this means is that it must be read in a manner which reflects that. This is the part that seems frequently lost when one is reading Scripture. Verses are often treated as being what can only be described as piece meal. They are taken out of the context which they exist in, the passage, chapter or book, and treated as if they stand alone.
Yet, with the possible exception of Proverbs, the passages of Scripture do not exist in a vacuum. They cannot be separated as if they somehow stand alone, uninfluenced by the situations, circumstances, and situations they were written amidst, unshackled from all that surrounds them. In this sense the meaning of passages are determined by their literary and historical conditions, as well as that which immediate precedes and proceed from it. then establishes the initial parameters by which one can then understand Scriptures, and what they are actually saying.
This is significant because the main goal of reading Scripture is to find the actual meaning of the passage. This can only happen when one understands two basic ideas. The first is what the authors intent is in writing what he is actually writing. The second is how the original audience would have understood that what it was that he was trying to teach or say to them. Creating a symbiotic relationship with each other, they provide the reader then with insight into the significance of what is being articulated.
Consider, for example, Philippians 4:13, one of the verses that is frequently cited. Here the Apostle writes to the church in Philippi, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What does this actually mean though?
Philippians is what would be considered to be a prison epistle or captivity letter written during his Roman imprisonment. It is not a time of considerable triumph or success for him. In fact, it is a time of suffering for him, one in which many might have lost hope, and he is taxed. Yet, he finds strength, and that strength comes from God who carries him through. Thus, as John Owen would write, “In everything that God brings our way, we must recognize that God’s goodness, kindness, love and tenderness are somehow present.”
This is a vastly different picture than one get’s when they take the verse out of its context and forces it to stand by itself without an understanding of the authorial intent or the audience interpretation. This is something that can be viewed throughout Scripture. Consider, for example, John 8:32. Here Christ says those famous words, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Without the context of what he is actually saying, one can interpret truth to mean anything, regardless of what he is actually saying and what he is actually referring to. This can, in turn, can be used to promote false teaching and false doctrine.
But then that is, invariably, the danger of taking Scripture out of context. Verses, or portion of verses alone, can be made to say whatever one may want them to say. This makes it dependent then on man’s interpretation rather than God’s plain meaning, as man informs Scripture rather than Scripture informing man.
The Significance of Genre
The struggle with context isn’t surprising though, at least not in some senses. The reason why is because there can be a degree of difficulty involved in reading Scripture. From beginning to end it tells the same story through a process of progressive revelation, as God reveals the fullness of His plan through the ages. Yet, it doesn’t always tell that story in the same way, or through the same format. In many senses what then has to be understood is that it is a diverse book inspired by the Spirit of God as it tells a single-story spanning thousands of years, articulated through many different voices and experiences.
Just as passages can’t be taken as piece meal, neither can one read the all the Scriptures with a one-size-fits-all treatment. Though it is unified in its ultimate purpose of testifying of Christ, it doesn’t necessarily do that in a comply unified manner, as if the Spirit of God did more than divinely inspired, completely taking over the individual author to write it all in one completely integrated manner. If this was what God had intended human authors would have been unnecessary completely. He could have simply opened the heavens and handed down Scripture written by His own finger.
Sixty-six books of varying lengths compiled together between the same covers, they vary in their genres considerably, and even within the genres there can be deviations away from the major form which the book itself follows. Each of these genres have to be rightly and properly viewed as being unique. The Psalms, for example, are poetry. This poetry can follow rhythmic prose, metaphor or parallelism. There are a number of books which would be considered Historical, whereas others would be classified as Narratives, Epistles, Prophecy and Apocalyptic, etc. Then, within these books, other genres might occur. For example, in historical books one might find poetic form, the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15, or they will find parables within the Gospels, which, by their nature, are narrative in form.
These different forms of literature then require a different way of reading and understanding the text. To fail to do so can, in fact, cause a great deal of confusion. This confusion, in turn, can lead one to a number of incorrect assumptions about God, about who He is, how He acts and what He, ultimately, expects from His children. They miss what He is trying to convey, and the truth that He desires for them to learn. For example, to read the Psalms as if they were a historic book would lead to one quickly misreading the text and cause considerable problems in trying to ascertain what it’s actually saying. After all, the poetic license of the Psalms leads to the use of hyperbole, allegory, apostrophe, anthropomorphism, and a number of other literary techniques. Likewise, one cannot read prophecy and apocalyptic literature as if it were historical or narrative. They have to consider the fact that signs, symbols and imagery are used in very specific ways in order to convey a very particular message, and idea about future events.
To this end the reader must consider the aim of what is trying to be conveyed in the book as they journey through the Scriptures, seeking to interact with God’s Word in a manner that befits it. The believer is, after all, called to rightly handle the Word of Truth. (2 Tim. 2:15)
This, obviously, is not everything that the reader must consider when they sit down to study the Bible, and these matters, such as bias and exegesis versus eisegesis, and the principle of Scriptura Scripturae interpres, or Scripture interprets Scripture, are other fundamentals that will be explored in the next article. For the time though, these three guiding ideas should provide the reader of God’s divinely inspired Word with the basics that they need to begin a deeper and more profitable dive into it, deriving from its pages what God intends, rather than simply what they may want God to say.