A few words on Biblical interpretation and Bible reading

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When we read our Bible, individually or corporately, we have the opportunity to hear, interpret and apply God's word. 

Hearing comes first, then our minds begin to comprehend, and make assessments of what we are hearing and how it impacts us. When we hear something, we begin to make sense of the sounds (or words) we hear. Once a determination is made, we begin to act in accordance with our assessment of what we've heard. It is only after we've heard something that we can assess it, and it is only after we've assessed something that we can act in response.

If you are driving a car and you hear what sounds like sirens, you may begin to check your various windows and mirrors. You may roll down your window to see if you can further hear which direction the sirens come from. You may slow down or pull over. You may speed up and move to the side. You only can do these actions, after you've made an assessment regarding the sound of the sirens. 

When reading the Bible, most of us don't think we are making any interpretations. Yet, when we open the Word and begin to hear we cannot help but begin to make an assessment. We compare what we hear with what we know. In our minds we begin to "play" with the ideas, concepts, and messages we've heard. As we are moved by conviction of what we've heard we begin to take action. It is in the realm of assessing what we've heard, and then applying what we've heard to our actions that interpretations take shape. 

When we hear something and do nothing, we've determined that nothing other than the status quo should be done. Our interpretation of something we've heard, which inspires us to do nothing must mean our interpretation made no impression for our immediate life. Sometimes we hear something, and it takes many thoughts, many conversations, many relationships, many days and nights to arrive at an actionable conclusion. Sometimes we hear something (like a siren) and immediately begin to apply what we've heard (like moving out of the ambulance or firetruck's way). Regardless of the speed of application, as soon as we hear something we begin interpreting it. 

It is frequently asked "is there a right way to interpret the Bible?" Often this question arises when people of two persuasions come to a particular impasse. Which way is right when one person interprets X and the other person interprets Y? How can a right interpretation be formed between multiple mutually exclusive interpretations? 

Let us return to the word-picture of the roadway. Is there a right way to interpret siren sounds? Are there consequences if you have an incorrect interpretation of the siren? If the sirens are those of a police officer behind you, would not the right interpretive move be to pull over? If you choose not to pull over, won't there soon be many more lights (and maybe helicopters with TV crews following you if you're driving a white Bronco)? 

A photo from June 17th 1994 of the OJ Simpson white Bronco chase

Reading God's Word is much like driving. We are continually making assessments, reaping consequences (sometimes serious, sometimes less egregious) and blessings (sometimes long-lasting, sometimes momentary bursts) as we read. How do we read the Bible with the right interpretation? How do we avoid the "traffic accidents" and consequences of "reckless driving" while reading the Bible? 

We need to remember who has paved the road and has jurisdiction over the roads we travel when we read and interpret the Bible. Cities, counties, states, and nations have jurisdiction over roads and use enforcement officers to reinforce the rules of each road. When we violate a rule of the road, we run the risk of incurring consequences. Those consequences being the associated laws of those who hold jurisdiction of that road. Therefore, when driving we (generally) try to follow the rules of the road. Since the road makers and sustainers have jurisdiction, they set the ground rules for speed limits, when to stop, when to go, when to pass, and when to merge. Since God has inspired various human writers throughout history to record and preserve God's Word, we must seek to follow God's jurisdiction over his Word as we read and interpret. 

Enough of mixing metaphors, what does this mean for our Bible reading and interpreting?

1. When reading and interpreting the Bible we must seek to interpret in a manner that honors and dignifies God as original author. 

2. When reading and interpreting the Bible we must seek to interpret in a manner that would be agreeable to the human writer if they were listening to our interpretation. 

When we read and interpret the Bible, we should seek to do so in a manner that if we were to have a conversation with God, God would have no corrections for us. This means our interpretation should defer to what God intended in a passage, and also how God chose to communicate that passage, through a historical writer. 

When reading our Bibles, we often jump to the question of "what does this passage mean for me?". That's a good question, but I hope in today's discussion you've been invited to consider including in your Bible reading the questions "what did God mean in this passage?" and "what did this passage mean to the inspired human writer?". God's truth from God's word is found as we discover God's intended meaning in the inspired text. If all we do when we read the Bible is come away with our own ideas, then we haven't actually dived in and discovered God's ideas and God's truth. 

There is a danger to driving on the road and neglecting or ignoring those who have jurisdiction of the road. There is a danger to reading the Bible and neglecting the God who has jurisdiction of the Word. There is a blessing to driving on the road and following the rules of the road. There is also a blessing to reading God's Word and seeking God's intended meaning communicated through inspired human writers. 

There is a richness of truth which we deprive ourselves of when we neglect, or simply ignore that God had a purpose and intended meaning of his Word. Let us read deeply the word of God asking, "what was God's intended meaning of this particular passage". Let us honor God as original author and consider his messengers as they recorded the inspired Word. 


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