The more I learn and fall in love with the story that graces the pages of the Bible, the more I become dismayed with the widespread failure of many to read it, and even more so to read it appropriately. Just yesterday I found myself in a conversation with another Bible student wherein we lamented how all too often many read the Bible with personal interpretation (“what does this mean to me”), and even our corporate Bible studies are guided with the question, “What does that mean to you”. Simply put, this is not “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” and we should be ashamed (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15-16).
As the title of this blog suggests, I want to explain the importance of discerning cultural parameters and nuances when reading and understanding the Bible. Oddly enough, all Bible teachers, pastors, and scholars alike know the principle of “audience relevance” and reading things in context. The quotes I could provide are numerous, but yet it seems many fail to be consistent as they move into reading some of their more favored interpretations of certain passages and portions of Scripture. I have noticed that often when talking through a certain challenging topic with other Believers , the conversation usually starts off in agreement with how we should read and understand the Scriptures, but as challenge sets against the presupposition they might hold, good interpretation is thrown out the window in favor of personal interpretation and traditional thoughts.
So what is an honest Bible student who doesn’t want to be ashamed to do?
I’d like to share a couple of quotes from some historic and modern Biblical scholars and use those quotes as springboard to explain some things.
“Literary genres have rules and conventions by which they operate. Communication is jeopardized if we do not understand the parameters of the genre of the literature we are reading.”. – Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, CBSB
Gaining an understanding of the different books of the Bible is necessary, and then one must discern different types of literature within the books. If a text is a poem, it would be erroneous to read it as a biography. The distortions many get when they fail to discern the literary genre and Scripture of Biblical literature can be devastating not only to understanding, but to faith in general. The CBSB explains, “…we must adjust our expectations so that we will come to those genres understanding the ancient conventions attached to that genre rather than imposing our own conventions on their literature”. It really is important to do this and to consider at every point of studying Scripture.
“A text can never mean what it was never intended to convey”. – Milton Terry
If we are reading the Scriptures with what is called “audience relevance” than interpretation and application must stay within those confines. Audience relevance is our consideration of what the text meant to the original audience that received it. Who, when, where is the original audience? Who or what is saying it to them? What cultural parameters and nuances affected their thinking? Why and how did they come to thinking about the topic?
After we consider these things, only then can we truly get the morsels of truth our of the Scriptures. Granted, it takes work and study, but that is the purpose of gathering as the Church – to reason through these things and find how they apply to the “healing of the nations”. Flee personal interpretations!
“One definite and simple meaning of Scripture is in every case to be sought”. – J. S. Russel
It is a popular thing to hear Christians recite “No Scripture is of private interpretation (cf. 2 Peter 1:20)”. The most of that passage was to illustrate that the prophets of ancient Israel did not speak on their own accord, but being moved by God they spoke inspired truths. Amen. However, another issue is that many have failed to understand the genres, the audience relevance, and therefore the clear meanings behind the text. It would seem that rather than help encourage study, Scripture verses and chapters have confused people and led to all sorts of strange interpretations. In order to arrive at the one definite and simple meaning of Scripture, which again must be sought (meaning it’s not meant to be easy), requires a background knowledge of the culture, the cross-references, and gauging that against alternative interpretations. Thank God for the gifting of teachers, amen?
“Even though the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. When we take our Western, modern culture and impose it on the text, we’re putting in meaning that wasn’t there, and we’re missing the meaning the text has”. – Dr. John Walton
I remember the paradigm-shift that I underwent as I considered that the Bible wasn’t meant to be read as a smorgasbord of information, but rather had an ancient-eastern mindset. That opened up a portal of necessary study and challenge. If we are seeking truth, we do no justice to Scripture by imposing our own spin on things, however being honest with this has been tricky. Consider the wisdom of J.I. Packer in this regard, “We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books, and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach the Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the church and the world…It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be “catholic” tradition, “critical” tradition, or “ecumenical” tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures.”
Another quote that bolsters all of these is as follows:
“Ultimately, everything in the Bible was written in particular times and cultures. So even though everything in it is for all time, not everything in it is for all circumstances. They better we understand the circumstances a passage originally addressed, the more confidently we can reapply its message to appropriate circumstances today”. – Dr. Craig Keener
I do hope this helps some sincere Bible students out there either begin their journey, or to work their way through the journey. I thank God for any wisdom He has granted me in this area and seek to walk worthy of my call to “encourage the saints in sound doctrine and to rebuke those who oppose it (Titus 1:9)”. I know I surely wish I had this wisdom when I began reading the Bible.
Pastor Michael Miano
The Blue Point Bible Church