This blog series is inspired by a lecture I had the privilege of attending by Dr. Ronald J. Sider. At the beginning of his lecture, he outlined some basic guidelines for how we should interpret the Bible. Though not every article is directly from this lecture, I am drawing heavily upon what Dr. Sider presented, however I am also drawing upon my education and experience. My hope is that each of these articles will help all of us more faithfully read and understand the Holy Scriptures.
There is a book called The Naked Anabaptist. It is a book that seeks to strip away all of the cultural elements of what it means to be anabaptist. Since groups of people often create their own culture, groups of anabaptists around the world have developed many different kinds of cultures. There are different kinds of Anabaptist groups all over the world, and Stuart Murray, in The Naked Anabaptist, examines what Anabaptists believe, with all of the cultural elements stripped away. In other words, if we strip away all of the cultural clothing, what does anabaptism really look like?
Just like it can be hard to separate the cultural perception from the doctrinal beliefs that define what it means to be anabaptist, so too it can be hard to separate our cultural ideas and beliefs from our religious ones. For instance, because of our culture’s view about the abhorrent and despicable nature of slavery, we read passages in the Bible pertaining to slavery differently than the people of the time would have read them. It is important to mention that not all of our cultural beliefs are wrong, but it should be understood that some of our priorities stem from our culture’s value system rather than the Scriptures themselves.
The horizon of the reader is the examination of how our lives, culture, and experiences shape how we understand the Bible. We have certain assumptions that we bring to our Bible reading that influence our understanding and shape how we interpret it.
Take for instance, Ephesians 5:33 (NLT) that says, “So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
A godly man reads this passage, and he finds a command for him to love his wife as he loves himself. A godly woman might read this passage and she will find a different command for her life: to respect her husband. A young man or woman longing for love might read this passage and dream about the ideal marriage and of wedded bliss. Someone in a struggling marriage might read this passage and think about how hard it is to actually live out. A man who wants to dominate and control his wife might glance over the command for him to love his wife, and focus most of his attention on the part about how his wife is supposed to respect him, lording it over her that she is supposed to respect him, pointing out any and all flaws that she has, demanding her to be his idea of perfection. So what does this passage mean? Is it a passage for men, for women, or for people to use to get what they want? The answer to this one should be obvious: it is a passage for men and women, and it is not a passage that is supposed to be used in an abusive manor. Some interpretations are relevant and valuable, while some are not. Each of the cases mentioned reveal something that the reader imports into their interpretation based on their own life or situation.
As we read the Bible, it is important for us to be aware of our own values, culture, and experiences that might change how we understand the Bible.
I beg of you, however, not to understand this as something to tell you to ignore where you are at in life or the values that you hold. God wants to meet each of us where we are at, and the Scriptures are a way that He does that. He can reveal to us beliefs and values that we should continue to hold, and also show us ones that need changing. Our cultures unhealthy obsession with sex is but one of the values that could use changing, however our culture’s values regarding equality and its stand against slavery and injustice are good things, not because the culture says so, but rather because those concerns are also in the Bible. A presupposed value is worth holding onto insofar as it is a value that is dear to the heart of God, which is revealed to us through the proper study of the Scriptures.
Simply being aware of our own biases, assumptions, and values helps us to better examine what the Bible really says. The Bible is sometimes talked about as a gold mine, where we venture in to dig for gold. This analogy can be helpful, especially in talking about the horizon of the reader. To take the analogy a little bit further, there are times when we bring things with us into the mine, then take them back out with us, claiming that it is gold. There are times when we might bring with us gold that has been mined from there in previous generations, and so it would be accurate to say that the gold came from the mine. Other times we bring other shiny rocks with us into the cave, then come forth with those same shiny rocks, claiming that they are gold from the cave, when in reality it is only fool’s gold which is quite worthless—which certainly didn’t come from the mine. Being aware of what we bring with us as we venture into the Scriptures can help us figure out what comes from the mine of God’s truth, and what we brought with us.