I am slowing working through John Walton’s Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief. In the first chapter, he addresses the relationship between interpretation and authority.
“A cognitive environment [worldview, cosmology] encompasses how people think about the world, including the place of the gods and the role of humanity. Anathea Portier-Young appropriately observes that ‘cosmology demarcates inside from outside, center from periphery, normal from aberrant. Its logic legitimates claims about truth and morality.’ Theology assumes such a cognitive environment. Consequently, if we are to understand the theology of the Old Testament [and the New Testament], we must not neglect its cognitive environment [which is what I believe most Christians do]. The only alternative is to impose our own Western or Christian cognitive environment on the Old Testament. If we do this, we are no longer describing Old Testament theology; we are describing our own theology. As a result, we will likely miss the intention of the Old Testament author entirely. And we misunderstand the Old Testament author, WE LOSE TOUCH WITH THE AUTHORITY OF THE TEXT.” (pg. 16, brackets, italics, and caps mine)
In a nutshell, whether we like it or not, the Bible is culturally bound by the “cognitive environment” or worldview of the peoples to whom the authors were writing. The authors did not have 21st century Christians in mind when they penned the text. So, unless we read with that firmly in mind and not ask the Bible to answer questions it is not ready to give (i.e. treating the Bible as a science textbook), we strip our interpretation of any authority whatsoever.
It’s been a while. We have a new addition to our household, but more on that later. I just wanted to reblog this post I found on the importance of historical study when it comes to our understanding of the Bible. I found it helpful. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments below letting me know what you think.
We got a few responses from our Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism volume that we were just beholden to the New Perspective and its fundamental problem—letting Jewish texts determine the meaning of inspired revelation. (That said, if they had actually read the volume or understood the New Perspective, they would have not so easily made that claim about our volume.) The challenge seems a little less pressing when you consider Jesus in his Jewish environment like we have with Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism, but even then I (Ben) have received a comment from some quite hesitant to allow any uninspired text to shape our understanding of the Bible. That sounds spiritual, but the historical study of the Bible is foundational for all serious interpretations. Whether one follows the historical-critical method or its evangelical cousin the historical-grammatical method, the key idea is history.
We don’t have any problem studying the practices of the cult of Artemis in Ephesus to help us understand Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s experience there in Acts 19. We don’t have any problem looking at archeological dig sites to help understand the daily life of Jews and their Decapolis neighbors to understand Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. In fact, my evangelical compatriots often rightly appeal to the distinctly historical nature of the narrative accounts in the Gospels and Acts to argue for their reliability. In these cases, allowing for historical boundedness to meaning does not entail that we are letting uninspired knowledge determine the meaning of the Bible. Rather than a hindrance, we think of these as aids. In the same way, we have a treasure trove of Jewish texts that give us a window into historical perspectives of Jews contemporaneous with the New Testament. Why would ignore this rich variety that we find in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, etc.? These help us gain invaluable historical information about the first-century Jewish experience.
When you read Reading Mark in Context, you will see that Jesus and Mark disagree with or modify Jewish categories as much as they accept them. As a result, we are not allowing these other texts to control our understanding of the Bible. They do, however, enlighten our understanding. If we are concerned with bad interpretation, I am much more worried about those who ignore historical information and therefore import their own very modern conceptions back onto Jesus and the New Testament. As they try to avoid letting actual historical documents determine the meaning, they end up committing a worse error by allowing their own opinion to determine the meaning (i.e., eisegesis). God chose to reveal himself in Jesus in a Second Temple Jewish setting for a reason, and it behooves the serious interpreter to understand the historical context in which God’s revelation occurred so we can understand it better. Reading Mark in Context won’t uncover all the historical issues, but it can at least tangibly introduce you and your students to Jesus’ world.
As you might be able to tell from my previous post, my approach to Bible study does not take a path that is conventional by any means in most evangelical churches. Many of us are used to the “topical” method where we decide on a topic we want to study and find passages that address it. We then string those passages together and seek to apply what they teach. The main problem with this manner of study is that you are forced to focus on a particular set of verses that were never intended to be removed from their immediate context. They are “orphaned”, and then forced to live with other “orphans”. This, in turn, can lead to “proof-texting” which is a way to make a verse say whatever the reader wants it to say instead of what the author intended it to convey. It’s just plain hermeneutical irresponsibility.
Others may choose to study a book of the Bible. They start with the first few verses, study them, and draw some applications from that periscope of verses. This is a little better because you are at least staying within a book. And as you progress in your study the flow of the book will begin to appear and connections can be made. The purpose of the book, the author’s intention, the issues that the original audience were dealing with start becoming clear. But, I believe there is still a better way.
I want to argue that the Bible was not meant to be read in chunks. We are to read the parts IN LIGHT OF THE WHOLE. We go from “scope” to “microscope”. Let me explain.
Start by reading the book (or at least a few chapters of the book if it is a long one) to get the natural literary context in your mind. This is the “scope” of the book. At this stage of the study, one should ignore (yes, really ignore) the chapter and verse numbers. Preferably, get yourself a paragraph or an “additive-free” Bible where the publisher has removed those numbers for you. Several apps have a way of removing the chapter and verse numbers. All that you will see are the paragraph indentations. This is not the time to “stop and smell the roses”, per se. Just read the book, or at least, a large portion of the book all the way through. Immerse yourself in the flow of the text. Here’s why I recommend doing this: any part of a book (verses, paragraphs, chapters) can only be understood well in light of the whole. Even individual word meanings can only be made clear in light of the words that come before and after, that is, in light of its CONTEXT. Verses have a context as well: the verses that come before and after. Same goes for paragraphs and chapters. So, to understand the “scope” of a book is to get a general idea of what the entire book is trying to convey. We commit to reading the largest available unit: the letter, the psalm, the gospel, the collection of prophecies. We read it as a unit. Rereading the book until you are familiar with the general flow and the literary style of the author may take you several attempts, but it’s worth it.
You might be asking: “How many times should I read the book?” Well, that will depend on you. The length and genre (epistle, narrative, poetry, etc) will also be a factor. I’m hesitant to suggest a specific number of times. The general structure and flow of some books are easier to grasp than others. The shorter books (1 John, Philemon, etc) may not require more than 5 or 6 readings. But as a general rule, I would suggest reading the book for at least a week before proceeding to the next step. You may need to stay in a book a little longer to get a grip on its structure.
(Sidenote: Forget about study helps during this time. Resist the temptation to pull out that great commentary. Just read the text of Scripture. You’ll be surprised how much makes sense without those study helps. And if you don’t understand something, welcome to the club. It really is ok to not understand everything you read the first, second, or … In many cases, the meaning of the text (i.e. what the author intended to communicate) will make itself clear as you read.
My good friend and brother in the Lord, Chance Fisher, also made a great suggestion. I was reading the book of John and what I did was divide up the book (chapter 1-7, 8-14, 15-21). I would read the first seven chapter for a week or so. Then the following week read the next 7, and so on. He suggested reading the first seven on day 1, the next seven, on day 2, and the last seven on day 3. Then start over again. This is a good idea because it does make you focus on the entire book in a relatively short period of time instead of an extended period in one portion of the book.)
Then, and only then, are we ready to start at the “microscope” level. Here we begin our “study” of the details. The basic unit of study at this level is the paragraph. Sometimes it may be multiple paragraphs if the author is continuing a thought, idea, topic, or argument over more than one. Depending on how detailed you want or need to get, you can begin your study of the individual sentences, phrases, and words in the paragraph. You will have already begun to see the natural divisions within the book when you read them whole and know how to divide it up properly for detailed study. This kind of “microscope” study can now be truly profitable because you have a clearer picture of the whole or “scope” of the book. You’ll be in a better position to discern whether your understanding of particular verses fit within the context or “scope” of the book itself. Commentaries, Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other study helps can be used to help clarify passages that are particularly thorny or unclear. These helps can now be used with some discernment because you have done the work of getting a relatively good grasp of the book’s flow of argument, themes, important ideas, and the like; all of which you began to see at the “scope” level.
I am convinced that one of the reasons we have so many different interpretations is because we focus on the level of the “microscope” at the expense of understanding the general “scope” or literary context of a book. Many start dissecting before they understand WHAT they are dissecting. The main idea is to read the parts in light of the whole! Stepping back and getting the “scope” first before using the “microscope” will lead to a richer, more rewarding, and more responsible time of study.
I found this pretty neat chart that shows you how long it takes (on average) to read through an entire book of the Bible. (From 3 Tips For Better Bible Reading) And here’s the response that Andy Naselli gives to a common objection against reading through an entire book:
I understand the objection: “There’s no way I could possibly find time to do this.” But aren’t there other activities you do in life for prolonged periods of time? Do you read other books for a few hours at a time? Do you ever spend an hour watching a TV show or two hours watching a movie or three hours watching a football game? Why not prioritize lengthy, undistracted time in the life-giving word?
It’s difficult to argue against that.
Why not try to read through an entire book in one sitting? Remember that chapter and verse numbers are relatively new additions to our Bibles. Reading whole books is the way the Bible was meant to be read. Consider the New Testament: The longest books take approximately 2.5 hours (Matthew and Luke) and most can be read in under 20 minutes!
The word “hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word that means “to interpret.” It the science and art of interpretation, with its own set of rules and principles. You may not realize it but you use hermeneutics every day. When you read your favorite biography or the latest novel, or even when you browse through the latest headlines, your mind is busy interpreting what you read. It is so common that you may not even be aware that you are “interpreting” as you read a book, see a documentary, or communicate with your friends. You are unconsciously making decisions, formulating ideas, developing perspectives, all based on how you interpret the input that presses itself on your mind and senses. But in this case, you almost do it by “instinct”, guided by preconceived ideas about how to interpret particular external and internal messages from different media.
Many of us do the same thing when we come to the text of Scripture. The problem with that is that we end importing our own ideas and modern cultural perspectives when we interpret the Bible. We unconsciously put on “modern” glasses when we look at the Bible, not aware of the fact that the Bible was written during time and culture much different than our own. The result is that we become our own antagonist and do not end with an interpretation that is faithful to what the author intended to communicate in the first place. Instead, the outcome is an interpretation that has been filtered by own prejudices and modern culture. And that is the main issue that hermeneutics seeks to address.
The critics would argue that it is impossible to gain any type of hermeneutical certainty because the definite meaning in the mind of the author has been lost to us since the author is no longer here to explain themselves. The best we can expect is a type of “community interpretation” where the text is understood to mean what a particular tradition teaches us it means. This is one of the reasons there are so many different denominations today. I would contend that it is the over-emphasis and/or under-emphasis of particular verses of Scripture, church traditions, and doctrines that fuel the plethora of denominations and faith traditions.
The goal of biblical hermeneutics is to “discover the intention of the Author/author (author = inspired human author; Author = God who inspires the text).” (1 – pg. 24) In other words, by following consistent hermeneutical principles we can come to understand what the author was intending to say to the audience which they were addressing. We allow the author to speak for themselves. It sounds pretty simple, right? Well, yes and no. The principles themselves are not necessarily complex. The problem comes in when we try to apply the principles of hermeneutics consistently That is what we must strive for: consistent application. Secondarily, there is the issue of cultural distance. We are centuries removed from the time of the writings and the languages of Hebrew and Greek. The Bible does not automatically cross into our culture in its application to our lives without at least a rudimentary understanding of the “where, when, and who.”
Every true believer in Christ recognizes the hermeneutical task as sacred. Why? Because it is the very words of the living God that we are trying to understand. It is the duty of every believer to strive to interpret, apply, and teach the Bible in such a way that it does justice to what God intended to communicate, and not what we want to the text to say to us. The goal is to understand “the ultimate treasure of divine truth!” (2) Biblical hermeneutics provides us with the tools that we need so that we can mine this divine truth.
(1) Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010, pg. 24
(2) Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, pg. 21