This is the second of three short posts on reading God’s word which first appeared in Partnership Perspectives.
The Aim of Interpretation
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.” And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart. (G.D. Fee & D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003, p. 18)
Our basis leads us to the conclusion that a meaning exists in any God-breathed passage, and that this meaning is available to us. However, while this ‘plain meaning’ is there, we often have to work at discovering what it is.
The aim of interpretation, though, does not end with the discovery of what a text means. If we were studying Shakespeare, or reading the local newspaper, this might be enough; an intellectual exercise which satisfies our curiosity and need to ‘know stuff’. Instead, the interpretation of God’s Word is only complete when we take it out of the study and into the realities of everyday life; when we listen to it and apply it to our lives. One of the ways in which we need to do this, is in our very approach to reading God’s Word and studying it. We must must come to the text in a spirit of prayer, asking God to reveal more of himself to us. Without this attitude, we treat the Bible as merely another piece of literature.
The Three Worlds
Over the years, many different schools of hermeneutics have developed, some more helpful than others. Many of them have concentrated on one small aspect of interpretation to the detriment of others. They may emphasise the historical context of a text, or the theological background, or focus on the development of the text from posited oral beginnings.
This does not seem to be the most helpful, or honest, way forward. If we are to interpret Scripture in a way which is meaningful for us today, we need a cohesive and integrated approach to what the Bible says, which takes seriously these three worlds: the world behind the text, the world within the text, and the world in front of the text (W.R. Tate, Biblical Interpretation An Integrated Approach, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008, pp 1-5). In other words, we need to know something of the context within which the text emerged; studying the varied historical, theological, personal, and cultural backgrounds. To explore the text itself, the act of exegesis – of taking the meaning from the text – thinking of words, phrases, and type of literature. And to know and recognise the world within which we live and to which the text needs to speak; the act of applying the text to our lives.
The World Behind the Text
This approach takes seriously the truth that we are separated from the world of the original writer by many things, language, culture, history, worldview. Any text we study was produced in a real world, by real people who had real concerns; it was not produced in a cultural, or historical vacuum. This is not to say that all of us need to be experts in nomadic sheep-herding, or the politics of the Israeli kings, but we do need to recognise that the text we are reading will be influenced by the context it was written in (J.S. Duvall & J.D. Hays, Grasping God’s Word, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005, p. 21).
The World of the Text
Later in this edition of Perspectives, there are a number of articles which deal with the issues of different types of text. Part of recognising the world of the text is to acknowledge that it is not possible or desirable to read a poem in the Psalms in the same way as reading a story from the gospels, or a letter from Paul. This is where we need to exercise “enlightened common sense”.
Study of the text itself will include studying the words used, the images evoked, the plot of the narrative. But as important as the actual text we are studying is its relationship to the rest of the book it is in, the rest of Scripture, and its role within God’s overarching plan for redemption. It is important to remember that “we do not create meaning out of a text; rather we seek to find the meaning that is already there.”
The World in Front of the Text
After looking at the two other worlds, we next approach the task of “determin[ing] the legitimate meaning for us today.” (Duvall & Hays, p.21) This brings us to the aim of interpretation we considered earlier, that the Word must be applied, by the Spirit to our lives. Not only did God communicate clearly with the people the text was originally intended for, but we believe that he continues to communicate, through the same texts, to us today. This requires, though, an understanding of our world and how the principles we discover from God’s Word can be best applied, meaningfully and relevantly.