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.
When we read the Scriptures, there are several “horizons” to consider. “Horizon” might be another one of those academic words that we take for granted. Though the word is typically used in conjunction with sunsets and landscape photos, the words has other usages. Think about what is means when someone says they wish to “broaden their horizon”. It means that they want to come to a greater understanding. They want to expand the realm of their knowledge. Likewise, there are certain “realms of knowledge” to consider when we look at the Biblical text.
The first horizon to consider is the horizon of the text—What does the Bible actually say?
If we strip away our own cultural biases, our own value systems, our own life experience, what does the Bible say? If we remove all the assumptions we make, that exist even before we open up the Bible, then we might find something a bit different on the pages of Scripture.
This can be even further divided. There is the intention of the human author, there is what is actually written, and there is God’s intention behind it.
1 Peter 1:10-11 says, “This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. They wondered what time or situation the Spirit of Christ within them was talking about when he told them in advance about Christ’s suffering and his great glory afterward.”
The prophets, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, wrote portions of the Old Testament. They didn’t fully understand everything that they were writing. They had glimpses into what would happen, but they didn’t see the whole picture. They longed to know more details about it all. Of course God knew, but they didn’t, even though they are credited with writing it. It was only made clear after the prophesies were fulfilled.
So when we look at the horizon of the text, there are several questions to consider.
What was the (human) author’s intent?
Sometimes people twist the meaning of the Scriptures, interpreting them differently then the author intended. This is where a lot of false teaching comes from. Getting back to what the author originally meant is very helpful to properly understanding what was written.
What is the context surrounding what is written?
Since we are literally thousands of years removed from the cultures and societies that the Bible was written in, and since the Bible itself was written over a very long period of time spanning different world powers and dominant cultures, there is a lot to learn in order to properly understand certain passages. To properly understand, we may need to study the historical setting, the culture of the day, and the passages surrounding the verse in question. Also, studying where the passage exists in the context of the entire Bible also helps, but more on that one in another post.
What is God’s intent, and is it different from the human author’s?
Though it may be splitting hairs in some cases, there are some instances where God’s intentions with a passage is different—or rather more complete—than the (human) author’s own perspective. Once again, think about the prophets. They didn’t understand the whole picture. Their intent was to be faithful in prophesying what the Lord told them to declare. So though they did not fully understand all of what they prophesied, or how it would come about, or the specific circumstances, God knew. God’s intention for that passage is greater than the (human) author’s intentions, since they did not fully comprehend the significance of those prophesies—but through their faithfulness we can read them now, alongside the writings about Jesus, and understand what God meant by those prophesies.
Be careful, however, in assigning different intentions to the Scriptures. Many people flippantly play the “God card”, attaching God’s name to something that often has nothing to do with God. Much spiritual abuse is inflicted by those who brazenly claim to know God’s intentions.
If the human authors of the Scriptures faithfully recorded all that God’s Spirit inspired them to record, then it stands to reason that God is the actual author of the Scriptures, which is a foundational belief for most Christians. Even in the case of the prophets, the intention of the prophet is not entirely different than God’s—God’s knowledge about the future is simply more complete than the prophet’s knowledge. This is the beauty and profound nature of the biblical prophesies.
As you can see, there is much to consider when looking at the horizon of the text, but in doing so we can better understand the Scriptures and grow closer to God.