Language, at the best of times, is difficult. Rarely, if ever, do words have a singular meaning. Rather, there is a cloud of meaning that surrounds each word. Metaphors, puns, euphamisms (“feet” in Hebrew sometimes refers to male genitalia), and a variety of other uses for words detail the vast array in which we use words. In order to understand what is being said, it takes an act of interpretation. In fact, every encounter with language requires some kind of interpretation. Sometimes we get it right, other times we are off the mark.
A friend of mine spent a year living and ministering in Ireland. One of the first Sundays in church, her group was going to someone’s home for lunch and she was invited. She didn’t know where the place was, so she asked one of the elderly gentleman if she could “get a ride.” He blushed and said, “Oh, no, dear, I don’t think you want that.” Someone later informed her that she had accidentally propositioned the man for sex and that she should next time ask for “a lift.” Even though they were using the same words, the meaning of those words were vastly different! Communication is difficult work!
In a normal conversation, it is easy to ask for clarification or correction in order to gain a better understanding of another’s point of view. But, when it comes to the task of biblical interpretation, we don’t have that luxury. We are centuries removed from the lives of the writers. We live in a different time, culture, and epoch. We speak different languages, live differently, and own a different way of conceptualizing the world. Interpretation is rarely a straight forward act when it comes to interpreting the scriptures.
To make it even more complex, the language of the scriptures is not any more concrete than is our language. In fact, any single word generally has a cloud of possible meaning through which we must sift. Sometimes there is a narrow meaning of a word. Other times it may employ several of the meaning simultaneously. One great example of this is the word “love.” We translate three different Greek words into our English word “love.” Each of those Greek words (agape, phileo, and eros) range in meaning from unconditional love, to brotherly love, to erotic love. And, yet, we choose to translate it with one word in English. And, to make it more complicated, our English word of “love” can mean multiple things as well (I love my wife, I love football, I love my dog). Needless to say, biblical interpretation must be entered into cautiously and humbly, recognizing that is not simply a matter of reading a passage and just “figuring out” as we discuss it in a group.
On occasion, you might hear a preacher or a teacher in the Church say that they are only preaching God’s Word or reading the “plain meaning of the text” or keeping with the literal sense of God’s Word. In such moments, it might be beneficial to ask “plain according to who?” Even trying to establish a literal meaning of every text is troublesome. In essence, when we seek to do this we confuse truth with fact. If we desire to establish a literal reading of every passage, then we would also have to say that thornbushes and trees talk and have kings (Gideon’s son). Few of us would be willing to stake our lives on saying this is true. Instead, we instinctively read this as a parable. Thus, even those that try to establish a literal, factual account of every word pick and choose which passages this actually applies.
The very act of reading is an interpretive act. When reading, one must assess the text and read accordingly. Is the person in the text speaking as narrator or as a character? Is the person mad, sad, happy, perplexed, bewildered, hurt, grumpy, sick, healthy, timid, bold, or otherwise? Should the passage be understood as poetry, songs, instructions, narrative, law code, or apocalyptic kinds of literature? How should I read that material appropriately? After all, do we read newspapers, comics, blogs, and eulogies in the same manner? Of course not. Each requires nuance. It is little wonder then that the Church can often be quite divided about how to understand what we are reading, even when reading the same texts!
Most of the time when we are interpreting a conversation or texts, we use guides that help us determine meaning. Much of this work is intuitive; we do it naturally without thinking much about what or why we are doing it. We use body language, context, tone of voice, prior experiences, knowledge, and logic to communicate with others, both receiving and giving messages. Shared culture, values, and voices of authority also help us share communication with each other.
Although we are not able to use all of these things in interpreting scriptural texts, we can use some of these same methods (i.e., not able to hear the tone of voice of the author but we can sometimes determine the context). As such, seeking understanding of the scriptures is not a futile task. In fact, because God desires to make God’s Self known to us (revelation), interpretation is a hopeful, hope-filled task.
An initial thought is important as we begin: language’s content and context are equally important. One way to think about this idea is found in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a German philosopher. He writes, “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” Language is only comprehensible out of the situation that gives rise to it. Language is both content and context. If we don’t know or can’t find the life situation for those words, we will often supply it out of necessity. This is also where the possibility for misinterpretation resides. It is both words that compose sentences and the grammar and setting that give interpretive clues to the meaning of those words.
The content aspect of language we are typically familiar with. This requires being familiar with the words, sentences, and structure of a passage. Are the verbs present or past tense? Is the passage poetic, metaphor, law code, lineage list? Are there certain words that repeat (i.e., Jonah’s book emphasizes everything that is “great”)? Are there any odd details that seem out of place? How does that shape the passage? The words and structures matter in significant ways. For instance, John 1:14 says that the Word “dwelled” among us. The word translated “dwell” is also the word used for “tabernacle.” Now, Jesus is connected with the wilderness journey of Exodus, suggesting what his purpose is, because of one small word!
When teaching from a passage there are three contexts that one must keep in mind: canonical context, original audience context, and our contemporary context. There is the biblical, canonical context. What book does this passage come from? How does it interact with the previous and following passages? Are there other books of the bible that challenge this passage? One of the things that we are sometimes prone to do is called proof-texting. Proof-texting takes a snippet of scripture out of its context.
A great example is Jeremiah 29:11. We likely can quote it because we put it all over home décor. It’s true that God promises blessings in this passage, but we lose a sense of the whole thought when we don’t read the rest of the passage. Here’s Jeremiah 29:10, “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.’” This is not an immediate fulfillment of promise. And, it is only completed AFTER judgment. The context matters.
Another context is the life situation of the community that received these letters or books. What was happening in the community? What were their struggles and strengths? What cultural factors help us understand the passage? For example, Romans 12 tells the church to repay evil with good. In so doing, they will “heap burning coals” on the heads of their enemies. In our culture, retribution and getting even are applauded. As such, some have read this to mean that repaying evil with good is merely another way to get even, get back, get ahead.
However, in that particular culture, it was difficult to start your home fire if it went out. The easiest way to re-start your home fire was by borrowing already burning coals. In transporting those coals, people would carry buckets on their head with the live coals inside so that the heat rose without burning themselves. So, it’s likely that the author of Romans means to say something like: “Repaying evil deeds with good might re-kindle the fire in the other person’s heart, drawing them once again to God.” Content and context cannot be separated.
As teachers and preachers, we must also be aware of our own context. Because we live in a different time and culture, not every aspect of the scriptures will be easily applicable. Here is where we can use a “tethered imagination.” We must remain faithful and true to the intent of the text while finding appropriate application for our community. We have to be aware of our biases and convictions and how that shapes our understanding of texts. This is no easy job and must be done with sincere care and prayer. Prophetic words must be matched with priestly care.
One fine example of this in practice is Eugene Peterson’s writings. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness is a book weaving its way through Jonah in order to talk about the pastoral vocation. Peterson takes some liberties with the scriptural text by applying it to today’s pastoral situation. Yet, simultaneously, he takes Jonah seriously and helps us get a better sense of the book’s intent, perhaps.
Now that we have thought about the content and context of language, I’d like to consider tools for interpretation. Albert Outler, a John Wesley scholar, noted the means by which John Wesley did scriptural interpretation, using four guides for such interpretation: scripture, experience, reason, and tradition. This is sometimes referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and sometimes the Wesleyan Hermeneutical Circle. I think a more helpful way of understanding how these four pieces work together is by conceiving of it as a spiral (Wesley’s Hermeneutical Spiral). The work of interpretation is never complete. There is always something more that can be gained a second time going through those texts. As such, the spiral gets tighter but never ends.
Scripture and our experience make up the data that we work with in interpretation. Scripture testifies to God’s revelation. Experience articulates life. These two things are the poles which we are constantly going between. In order for something to be true, it must make sense in both of these arenas. Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth. Knowledge arises at the intersection between these two realities. That doesn’t always mean that we interpret correctly, but it does mean that theology is a practical matter and all practical matters are theological in nature. In other words, there is no true sacred and secular divide for both arenas are the place where God acts.
Tradition and Reason are not sources of data from which we build our knowledge. Rather, they are tools that help us navigate between Scripture and Experience. Reason and Tradition can be implemented in poor ways, but we use them regardless. The question is whether we are using these tools well.
Reason is our ability to put things together, providing a framework for understanding. Reason synthesizes what is gained from Scripture and experience. A prime example is the early Church’s affirmation of the Trinity. Deuteronomy 6 told them that God is One. Yet, Jesus came and was surely God, but also spoke to the Father and then sends the Spirit after he ascends. God is One yet God is Three. Thus, the only logical option is to say that God is Triune. But, because Trinity is so far outside of our experience, our logic is limited. It can only go so far and should be aware of its boundaries.
Tradition can also be a helpful tool. It can be right or wrong, but either way we can learn from the past. It is a conversation between students past and present, disciples along the way. We learn and build on that faith handed down to us from the apostles. The benefits of tradition is that it is a way of affirming that our beliefs are not just our own but is established upon a history that has demonstrated its truth in the lives and experiences of others. If we ignore the past, we are likely to repeat those things that are harmful and neglect those things which might be for our benefit.
A helpful example has been studying Luther and Wesley. Luther affirmed the ministry of the Word. As Protestants, we come from a strong heritage affirming the ministry of the Word. But, a side-effect has been the neglect of the Lord’s Table. Wesley told his followers to take communion as often as they could for it is a means of grace. Holding these both in tension (which Wesley did), can be helpful in our ministry of Word and Table, as the Lord taught us, in communal worship.
Finally, some simple suggestions that can make a major impact in our interpretation and teaching. Begin with prayer. We need the Spirit’s illumination and wisdom. After you have selected your passage, read the entirety of that passage’s book. Know how that passage fits in with the rest. Read the passage itself several times very slowly, marking interesting details. Do word studies that give you a sense of the purpose of the passage. Ask questions of the passage: what time of day or night, who are the characters in this passage, what are they doing, where are they going, where are they located now, what is their socio-economic setting? Determine what kind of literature this passage is and the literature style (i.e., letter, law, psalm) of the book. How do those shape each other?
Next, think about that passage in light of the entirety of scripture. Where does it fit in the overall narrative? It’s helpful to know that John’s Gospel requires knowledge of Genesis, Luke requires knowledge of Isaiah, Matthew requires knowledge of Exodus, 1 Samuel requires knowledge of Deuteronomy and Judges, etc. What books are important for helping us understand this passage? What books might contradict or challenge this passage?
Next, study the contexts. Read up on the culture and history of that surrounding time period. What was happening? Why does that matter? Does Paul’s Roman imprisonment change the tenor of Philippians? Does knowing about the Maccabean revolt shed light on Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem before he was betrayed? Allow the framework of that time period to become your framework more and more.
Communication requires community. Read commentators, theologians, pastors. Read past and present voices. Converse with them and allow them to help shape the message. Were you on the same page with them? If not, is there something you are missing? Have conversations with trusted partners in ministry and life that can help shed light on those passages as well. It will help you begin communicating your own thoughts on the passage as well.
Lastly, prayerful seek throughout the process where your people are at. How might they hear this passage? What struggles face them? What joys are part of their life? What is the best way to faithfully, lovingly communicate this so that it impacts their lives and experience of God as well? Who would they identify with in the passage? Is there someone else they need to identify with? How is the narrative forming in their own lives and can I help them take notice of that?