What we call “the Bible” or “the Scriptures” is a historical collection of books which were composed over 1,500 years by 40 different authors. It was recorded under the guidance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, yet at the same time was addressed to different groups of people in different circumstances living under different covenants. This is a very important point that is all too often overlooked. It’s not to be studied as an abstract collection of timeless sayings, but rather as a historical document applying timeless wisdom of God to people, individually and collectively, under different circumstances.
Another point is that the Bible contains words spoken by :
– people inspired by God
– people not inspired by God (and even demon-possessed people)
– demons and satan.
So although we colloquially refer to the Bible as “the Word [of God]”, if you want to get precise, a better way to phrase that is “the Bible contains (or records) words of God”. Only Jesus is called “THE Word of God”. The Bible writings most commonly refer to themselves as “the Scriptures”. When we study our Bibles, we want to study the words of God, specifically, as well as examine how putting trust in God enabled peoples and individuals to advance with God (and how distrusting God led to failures).
I propose a simple, well-anchored 3-step approach to Bible study.
1) Step 1. Interpretation.
The question to ask is:
Why was the text written, and what problem was it trying to solve?
If you study a bible verse or a passage, always consider it in a larger context. It’s critical to always be mindful of this. For instance, for a verse, that larger context would be, progressively: verse → discourse → book → covenant. (Keep in mind that verse and chapter divisions aren’t divinely inspired, so don’t pay too much attention to those). If I don’t know why, to whom, and under what general circumstances was the text written, and how it fits with the larger context of the situation, I will most probably miss the intent of what is being said, and will subsequently misapply it.
This step is called “interpretation”. The idea is to get the meaning that the Divine Author has invested in the text, and how it applied to the original audience. If I don’t carry out this step within the original historical context, I am in danger of reading my own meaning into the text.
Interpretation should be:
- historical – why and to whom and under what circumstances was the text written
- contextual / rhetorical – by considering the different levels of context of the text studied (a passage, discourse, or the entire book of the Bible) – we can narrow down a set of potential candidate meanings to ideally just one.
- grammatical – correctly deriving the meaning based on the grammar of the original language
Taking things out of their historical and immediate textual context is probably the biggest “sin” in Bible interpretation that can be frequently seen committed left and right. If I don’t understand the meaning intended by the divine author so as to then extract that meaning from the text (exegesis – extracting the original meaning from the text), I will inevitably supply my own context based on my pre-existing beliefs and biases, and read the text through the prism of such presuppositions, thus supplying my own meaning to it (eisegesis – importing the meaning into the text). Unconstrained by any context, a single passage read in a vacuum can mean dozens of different things, which leaves the reader the freedom to choose the meaning that reads the most comfortably (or the most uncomfortably, depending on their religious inclinations) given their biases.
Step 2. Bridging
The question to ask is this:
How is my situation (covenant and circumstances) similar to the original audience (and how is it different)?
This is a bridging question, and it is a very important part of the whole process.
You will notice that this question consists of 2 parts. The first is the most important, and it is this: how is the covenant I’m under different from the original audience?
The second part of the question addresses more specific details. If the proposed solutions are circumstantial (i.e., they are trying to address specific problems arising out of a specific set of circumstances) – how are my circumstances similar to the original audience?
At this stage, I am moving from interpretation to application. We have to cross the bridge to get from the “there and then” to “here and now”. We have to bring the text home, so to speak.
Going through the first 2 steps correctly before moving to the personal application step are absolutely critical. If I don’t know what the problem was (the “why”), I can misapply a prescribed remedy (the “what” and the “how”). In the medical world, amputation might be viewed as an acceptable solution for an unsalvageable gangrenous limb, but is a very unsuitable remedy for a migraine.
Step 3. Application.
The question to ask is this:
How do the truths / principles that I’ve learned from steps 1 and 2 apply to my life.
Notice that the way I phrased this question is predicated upon working through the first 2 steps.
Again – a lot of the specific prescriptions recorded in the Bible are circumstantial (e.g., long hair for women’s head covering in 1 Cor 11:1-16, postponing marriage in the context of an economic crisis in 1 Cor 7, not allowing local women to interrupt a church meeting to publicly announce their pet theories about Eve coming before Adam in 1 Tim. 2:11-14, etc). Additionally, some of those are rooted in the culture of the day (long hair for women’s head covering in 1 Cor 11:1-16). So unless we grasp the context of what was being said, why it was said, and to who, we really can’t make a proper personal application.
In those cases, try to derive the guiding principle behind the divinely proposed solution. E.g., in the passages mentioned above that could be:
- don’t project a wrong image by your externals in the context of your culture (1 Cor 11:1-16)
- try to do what you can to economically prepare for starting a family in the context of an economic downturn (1 Cor 7)
- don’t allow people to voice just any kooky religious idea to your audience, and also enable your audience to fend off such ideas by giving simple, sound theology in the areas of controversy (1 Tim. 2:11-14)
Some other ideas have implied links in the causal chain of reasoning that you have to reconstruct to properly apply them. Read this article for one such example.
And there are a lot of things in the Bible that are timeless truths that are stated generally enough to apply in any circumstance. The book of Proverbs is probably the best example of that.
By far, the most important area of application of any truth for us is the finished work of Christ at the cross, and the New Testament (I do mean the “testament” in the sense of the “last will of the testator). What Jesus has gained for us through his death and resurrection is absolutely breath-taking. And if we are in him – we are co-heirs with him, and the inheritance is ours right now! We just have to know what’s in the will, and how to appropriate it. Well, to be sure, one lifetime is clearly not enough time to explore all his immeasurable riches. That’s why he offers us eternity with himself.