March 17, 2008

How to Read Scripture

I just finished reading N.T. Wright's book The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. What an amazing and small book. In this work, Wright explores the issue of what is meant by the authority of Scripture, some common misuses of different understandings of authority, and how to read Scripture in a way that respects the true authority. The authority of Scripture, according to Wright, is the authority of God through the Scripture that empowers the Church to fulfill its mission.

Here are a few quotes:
"...'the authority of scripture,' when unpacked, offers a picture of God's sovereign and saving plan for the entire cosmos, dramatically inaugurated by Jesus himself, and now to be implemented through the Spirit-led life of the church precisely as the scripture-reading community...I want to insist...that we discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church's mission, and that we discover what the church's mission is only when we look first at God's purpose for the entire world..." pp. 114-115
"This means that 'the authority of scripture' is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation." p. 115
The overarching story of the Bible points not toward a spiritual heaven, but toward a renewed creation. God has been moving human history toward a time when He will renew what has been damaged; a new (renewed) heaven and earth. Through Christ, God has already begun that new work, that recreation, in each person who believes and follows Jesus. We are the presence of the Kingdom of God in this world. In this capacity, we are called to "improvise" the carrying out of this mission and Kingdom in our world.

To "improvise" does not mean that we make things up as we go along. Any knowledgeable (or somewhat knowledgeable) musician will tell you that improvisation has definite rules. You can't improvise a lead guitar solo in the key of C if the rest of the band is playing in the key of G. Not only that, but there are certain notes that go with certain chords and certain scales that must be played...not to mention the timing and rhythm issues.

When we improvise, we have definite rules. We have thousands of years of God's activity recorded for us in Scripture. We see how God has worked and moved, and we are part of that continuation. We also have two thousand years of church tradition from which to draw. Tradition does not stand on the same level as Scripture, but it is wise to see how holy men and women of the Church have understood Scripture and their part in God's mission.

Wright gives five strategies for honoring the authority of Scripture. We must have a reading of Scripture that is:
  • totally contextual
  • liturgically grounded
  • privately studied
  • refreshed by appropriate scholarship
  • taught by the church's accredited leaders

So, let's look a little deeper into How To Read Scripture :

1. Read it in context.

Every word, sentence, verse, chapter, and book is set within context. In order to under stand the verse, you must understand the chapter. In order to understand the chapter you must understand the book. You cannot remove a verse from its context and expect to get the correct interpretation...unfortunately, there is a lot of this going on. It may make a great sermon, but it destroys the integrity of Scripture.

We must also remember that each biblical writer lived in a particular culture during a particular period of time. His culture and time period had an influence on him and his writing. He also wrote in a specific genre. It is important for our interpretation for us to understand this.

Another thing to remember is that we are reading the Bible in a particular culture during a particular period of time. Every person reads the Bible through their own lens of experience, language, culture, etc. In order to understand the Bible, we must be able to understand the lens through which we read the Bible...it will help us understand why read the Bible in a particular way. Have you ever noticed that when a Calvinist reads the Bible they always see Calvinistic theology? Arminians see Arminian theology? Postmoderns? Moderns? The list could go on and on. We have to be aware of our lens so we can be open to God Word to us...it may be different than our theological or experiential training.

2. Have a liturgical grounding.
Scripture was given to the community of believers. From the earliest times it was expected that people would wrestle with Scripture texts in community with others. One person's understanding is valuable in helping others to understand a passage. It also keeps people from going off the deep end with incorrect understanding of Scripture passages.

A liturgical use of Scripture means that it is meant to inspire and infiltrate every aspect of our worship...not just the sermon. Scripture needs to be read, sung, preached, and prayed. It is the founding document of our faith and practice; it informs our ethics and our spiritual development. On a practical level this means that readers and preachers must be knowledgeable of what they are reading...it helps to have proper inflection and correct pronunciation when reading.

3. Study it privately.
While we are meant to live with Scripture as a community, we are also expected to study and wrestle with it on our own. We find strength to go on, insight for holy living, and a transformation of our mind and heart as we study and learn. God speaks to us on a personal level through His Word.

There are several ways to do this.
a. Read it devotionally. Take small chunks of Scripture and just meditate on them. This can be done for a set time period or over a few days or weeks. The point is to allow the full meaning of the passage to soak in and inform your life.
b. Read it in a year (or some other time frame). The point of this is make your way through the whole of Scripture over a set period of time. Some people will read the entire Bible in a year, and many take longer. I have started doing this by listening to the Bible on CD in my car on the way to and from work.
c. Study the Bible. This means digging deeper in the meaning and significance of words, phrases, verses, the culture, etc.

There is a time and place for each method and approach, and each one should be used on a regular basis.

4. Use appropriate scholarship to inform your reading.
We are separated from the biblical writers by over 2,000 years, several major cultural shifts, and two to three foreign languages. To think we can simply read an English translation and get the full meaning of the text is ludicrous. We can get a general idea by reading several different translations, but they still fall short. Biblical scholarship is a continual process of study that helps us understand the language, the culture, and time distance.

This doesn't mean we have to be biblical scholars, but we do need to read good sources and commentaries. We need to utilize word studies, various translations, and be aware of the vast differences in meaning for words and cultural understandings. We have to be careful and pick the best of the available resources. Just because someone has some letters behind their name doesn't mean they are right.

5. Listen to the church's accredited teachers.
This is an extension of the previous "reading," but with some added insight. Good teachers take part in each of these five methods of reading...they read it in context, they participate liturgically, they read it privately, they use appropriate scholarship, and they subject themselves to the church's appointed teachers.

By "accredited" I do not necessarily mean seminary-trained. That is helpful, but not always. Accredited teachers have a significant knowledge base, but also have a deep personal, prayerful experience of the Scripture. They are also recognized as having the spiritual gift of teaching by the Church. They also recognize the deep spiritual consequences associated with being a teacher of the Word.

Each of these "reading" are necessary to hearing the Word of God from the Word of God in a contemporary setting. Scripture is the source of what we know, believe, and practice in regards to God and living in His Kingdom. If we are to truly understand it and it's application, we must read it in relationship to these five "readings."

Questions?
How do you see these "readings" being a benefit and a safeguard for biblical interpretation? How have these kept you from a wrong interpretation? Do these pose any problem for you? How would this understanding correct a lot of misunderstanding?

Here are a few other posts you might like:
Experience and Authority in the Garden of Good and Evil
Are We Asking the Wrong Questions of the Bible?
10 Thoughts on the Nature of the Bible (though in light of this post, I might rethink the explanation of number 7)

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