Some consider it just another ancient book containing many unbelievable stories; others feel stirred by its message of hope. Christians recognize it as inspired, or “God-breathed,” as suggested by the literal translation of the Greek term theopneustos found in 2 Timothy 3:16. This God-breathed word is like a “light shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19, NIV), communicated by God through prophets who spoke (and later wrote) as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
God’s enduring love story, however, requires translation and interpretation. Biblical authors wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. They lived
in vastly differing cultures and under diverse historical circumstances thousands of years before us. How can we make sure that we truly understand not only what they wrote, but what they (and the Spirit inspiring them) really meant?
ENTER BIBLICAL HERMENEUTICS
If we want to avoid erroneous interpretations of the Bible, we need to pay close attention to the principles and rules of biblical interpretation. Scholars call this field “hermeneutics.” Most of us recognize some of these principles. The battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), reminds us that the Bible alone is the final norm of truth in our lives. Tradition and even our own ideas are really irrelevant when we look for God-inspired truth. Tota scriptura is another important principle. It suggests that all Scripture—both Old Testament and New Testament—is inspired by God and thus fully authoritative.
The Reformers also highlighted the analogy of Scripture. What does this mean? If all Scripture is truly inspired by God, then we will also find a fundamental unity and harmony in all of it. This unity and harmony requires that Scripture be its own interpreter. That means practically that we read everything the Bible includes about a given topic if we truly want to understand the topic or theme.
The final principle that we need to remember is this: spiritual things need to be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:11, 14). As Martin Luther noted long ago, we come to God’s Word as beggars, requiring the Spirit’s illuminating power. This recognition is humbling and exhilarating at the same time. We are humbled because we recognize that we are in need of the same Spirit who breathed life into words written by frail prophets in ages past. At the same time, we are also exhilarated, for digging deeper into Scripture offers us a chance to encounter the living God again and again—wherever we are.
CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT
Adventists have always used the historical-grammatical (also called historical-biblical) method of interpretation. This method grows naturally out of the basic principles already mentioned. It has two anchors. It accepts the self-testimony of Scripture but pays careful attention to the language of the text, its structure, historical context, and cultural context.
Every encounter with the biblical text, however, begins with a translation. Most of us don’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Koine Greek, so we have to rely on different translations. A good strategy for careful Bible study
and interpretation is to compare translations, for every translation (including the English King James Version) involves interpretation. Literal translations can be helpful, but they do not always represent the better translation. Reading a wide variety of translations ensures a better understanding of the biblical text.
Context is key when we read Scripture. Context works on different levels. Each text has an immediate context—verses surrounding it that offer more information so that we can make sense of the text. Larger text units represent the next level of context. They do not always correspond to chapters (as obvious in Isaiah 52:13-53:12). A number of chapters together can form a bigger subunit. Genesis 1-3 tells us of God’s marvelous creation and humanity’s deep fall. The next chapters contain information about the growth and development of humanity, followed by another section dealing with the Flood (Gen. 6-10), brought on by humanity’s wickedness. Reading these sections together will help us avoid pulling something out of its context.
Entire books are the next larger context. Authors did not just write as ideas came to mind. The Bible was not the result of divine dictation (at least for most of its content). We can see clear structures, often laid out as an architect lays out the plan for a house. Biblical authors were careful and focused when they communicated God’s message.
Once we have understood the immediate and larger context of a given text, we want to know when it was written and who wrote it. What was the historical context? Jonah’s prophetic book did not emerge in a vacuum. Israel suffered from many Assyrian incursions and other external threats during his lifetime. Moments of relative peace often alternated with periods of severe national crises. Knowing this may help us better understand Jonah’s actions, and perhaps even some of his emotions.
Biblical interpretation, however, is concerned not only with history and culture and languages. Ultimately, we want to understand better who God is and what He is doing in this world. A good question we can ask ourselves as we read a text or chapter is: “What does this text or chapter tell me about God and His character?” That’s really the essence of theology—and it doesn’t require an academic degree.
Sometimes the answer to this question may be straightforward; sometimes we may have to read “between the lines” and pay attention to the larger story. Moses’ engagement with God on the mountain that ultimately led to God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6, 7 offers some clear answers to this question: God is compassionate, long-suffering, gracious, merciful, and so much more. At the same time, however, the biblical text tells us that He is also a righteous judge who takes sin seriously. It’s thrilling to find God in Scripture in many unexpected places.
AND MY LIFE?
Understanding the Bible is not purely an academic exercise. It’s an existential encounter as we relate to texts inspired by God’s Spirit to communicate His grand plan of salvation. Once we have learned something about God’s actions in this world, we have to answer a very basic, yet also very personal, question: What does this mean for my life, today, as I relate to God and to people around me? The application of biblical truth learned from digging deeper into His Word often requires a decision. It’s a response to the God of Scripture who continuously pursues His creation with the age-old question: “Where are you My child? Come home, for I want to spend eternity with you!”