Thursday, February 14, 2013


When I taught a class called Bible Study Methods at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, I taught three steps:  observation, interpretation and application and that these steps must be followed in that order.  My usual introductory spiel went something like this (abbreviated):  "The first question we usually ask of a passage of Scripture is, 'What does this mean to me?'  But we have no business asking this question without first asking (and determining) 'What does this mean?'  And we have no business asking 'What does this mean? until we have asked (and determined) 'What does this say?'"

We would spend a great part of the semester doing exercises in observation -- grammar, context, figures of speech, etc. -- attempting to observe what various texts were saying.  After this we would do more exercises in interpretation, attempting to determine as closely as possible the meaning of the text in its context and to its original readers and/or hearers.

It was only after they had gone through all this labor and toil that the students were allowed to do application -- to take the principles learned from their studies and place them in their own contexts -- into their personal situations.  The results were often amazing, frequently bringing tears as these were read in class.

A big problem that kept recurring in this process was that of keeping one's present context out of the first two steps and saving it for the third step.  To a great extent this was impossible.  The students did not arrive in college as blank slates.  Most had some background of biblical knowledge, of psychology and of history.  Much of this was helpful, although much simply got in the way, keeping the students from seeing the Scripture afresh.  I noticed that sometimes those who were relatively ignorant of Scripture were often able to grasp biblical meanings more quickly.

But this is an issue not only for first semester college students, it is a problem for every person who desires to have the Scriptures relevant in his/her life.  It is a constant problem for me, not only in my personal studies, but also in attempting to relate them to the culture around me and to my fellow believers.  I have often seen it in objections raised to things I have written, as well as in my teaching and discussion with students.

Now please don't get me wrong.  I have always appreciated disagreement, even being corrected on faulty reasoning or ignorance on my part (even when my pride gets hurt a bit).  I appreciate listening to other interpretations of Scriptures or theology, or current events.

What bothers me are objections in which, as I see it, the objector inserts his/her own context into the interpretation rather than into the application of Scripture.

A few "for instances" --  (Please pardon me for oversimplifying and forgive me if you feel I'm referring to something you've said.):

First, the argument from experience:  When Jesus commands to "forsake all" and follow Him, that this forsaking is required in order to follow, the reply is given from experience, "But when I chose to follow Jesus, the forsaking came automatically."  Well, maybe so; I can't question your experience; but that's not what Jesus said.  He made an all-or-nothing demand.

Then, there are the hypothetical "what-ifs?"  Jesus says, " not resist the evil..."  The question is immediately thrown up, "But what about protecting your family (wife, mother, etc.)?

And, of course, the political or patriotic.  The Bible says to love your neighbor, even the alien.  The reply, "But there are 11 million illegal aliens in this country.  We've got to do something about them."

I'm not saying that these are not legitimate questions; I'm saying they're being asked at the wrong time and place.  These are not interpretation questions, they are application questions.

As those who believe in the inspiration of the Scriptures and claim to believe in the authority of the Scriptures, we are obligated to make every effort to understand the Scripture in its own context.  We must have some understanding of the time and place in which these sayings were made and of the original hearers.  We must seek to clearly determine what Jesus meant when He made these radical demands.  It is only when we have a clear understanding that we can seek how to relate them to our own situation(s).  We dare not insert America, guns, Mom or apple pie into our interpretation of these demands.

But we must insert these demands into our relationship to America, guns, Mom and apple pie.

1 comment:

Trent said...

Do not resist evil is listed with the truths of the Kingdom and also in context gives examples. Jesus could easily have said, "if a person tries to kill one of your children, offer him both" but he did not. I see nothing of physical danger. Earlier in the chapter he address's murder, but again not killing someone in self defense. Overall, I think you wrote an excellent article though and I agree. Our first question needs to be "what was the writer saying to his audience" because thats what it means.