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.
Those of us who exist in scholarly circles within the church often take our vocabulary for granted. We use big words. We study and learn to understand very complex and nuanced ideas. In order to accomplish this important task, it requires us to learn more words to help us both understand and express these ideas.
There is one word that is very important in the study of understanding the Bible: Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is, by definition, “the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” Anyone who reads the Bible and comes to a conclusion about what the Bible means, goes through a “hermeneutical process”. That is, they interpret what they read.
So why are hermeneutics so important? It is of such great significance because it is the very process by which we Christians come to understand the words of our holy book. Whenever we read the Bible—a vital practice for all believers—we engage in hermeneutics in order to come to any sort of understanding of it.
The book of 2 Peter talks about some of Paul’s letters, and it says, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16, NIV). Paul wrote a significant portion of the New Testament, and 2 Peter tells us that some of those things can be hard to understand. Put very plainly, the Bible can be hard to understand at times. Already, before the New Testament was compiled, there were those who twisted and used Paul’s letters and other Scriptures, twisting them, distorting them, and using them to achieve their own ends and agendas.
This false teaching, this leading people astray, this problem for the early church, all started because people did not properly and responsibly interpret the Bible. It is unclear to me whether these false teachers twisted the Scriptures intentionally to achieve their goals, or whether they actually believed their own twisted ideas about what the Bible teaches. But in either case, people cannot easily be led astray if they know better themselves. Thus it is important for each of us to learn to properly understand the Bible, so that we can know better—so that we won’t be taken in by false teaching.
Though being prepared to stand against false teaching is important, there is another thing that is also very important: our own spiritual growth. When we know how to properly understand the Bible, it helps us better understand the God of the Bible. It helps us understand the one whom we praise and worship. It helps us understand God’s character, which in turn gives us a clearer picture of how to live out our own lives.
There are a great many ways that people interpret the Bible, and I am not going to go into every one of them, however in this series I do want to make us aware of a few things to help us move forward as we read the Bible.
Disagreements about how to interpret the Bible is no small issue. It has split countless churches. Some disagreements are about serious heresies and false teachings, other times they are about petty disagreements over minor issues. Most denominations that exist today had their start in a disagreement with the church that they used to be a part of. Though the bitterness and hatred between denominations is cause for sadness and lamenting, the fact that different denominations exist need not be a bad thing. Despite their sad beginnings, I know God has still managed to use many different churches and denominations in powerful ways.
In A Third Way, Paul Lederach says, “Perhaps it is in the wisdom of God that there are many theological streams, so that in the end the totality of His truth will be comprehended in ways no one stream could communicate alone. Thus a responsibility is placed upon each stream to articulate and to live its vision as clearly as possible.” As we study the Word, we should be ready to stand by our own convictions about the Scriptures, but also recognize that just as different parts of the body serve different functions and play a different role, so too we as different churches may see things differently because of the role God has given to us in our particular context. So be faithful to the Lord in what has called you to.
As we each seek to better understand the Scriptures, let us all be careful not to demonize those who may come to slightly different conclusions than we do. Of course there are some non-negotiable beliefs in Christianity, such as the existence of God, or that Jesus is God’s son. But in many things, a different understanding may not be a bad thing. Augustine of Hippo is credited with the quote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
So let us boldly read the Scriptures, humbly interpret them, and confidently and graciously live them out in our lives.