How We Read the Bible: According to the Bible

So we’re looking at how Christians should read the Bible. We’re hoping if we can answer this question, we’ll have the answer to:

Should Christians vote Republican?

Do I need to go to church every Sunday?

Is it wrong to speed in my car?

…and maybe a few other questions. But as we discussed, there’s a lot of different ways to answer this question. For most, however, the place to find that answer—whatever it may be—is fairly obvious: you have to look in the Bible.

When asking how to read the Bible—whether it’s literally or figuratively or culturally relative or final or whatever—you have to consult the same book. The direction of Scripture is, if not the only instruction that matters, the instruction that matters the most. (This can be, of course, rather circular, but we’ll save that for later.)

So let’s look at a few things the Holy Book says about itself. Let’s look at how the biblical authors themselves interpret the Bible and what the Bible claims about how one should understand its words.

How the Bible Interprets Itself

The Bible does most of its internal interpretation implicitly by borrowing from itself. When Micah quotes Isaiah 2:4, “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares,” Micah is affirming the words of Isaiah and repurposing them—something done in everyday conversation. The Old Testament does this a lot, often referring to the stories and laws given elsewhere in its text.

However, in the Old Testament we begin to see a more complex relationship between the different biblical books and authors. In its pages, we find what can only be described as discussion and debate.

Ive written before on the internal debate regarding retribution theology as well as theodicy, but the discussion happening inside the Old Testament is nowhere more plain than in Joel 3:10, when the prophet takes the words of Isaiah, flips them, and makes a new point, “…they shall beat their plowshares into swords!”

And then we come to the New Testament. As Christianity reflects on Judaism, the religion out of which it was born, we can see many more explicit examples of the biblical writers interpreting the Scripture they inherited.

Again, a lot of it is pretty straight forward. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he quotes Deuteronomy, You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” I don’t think anyone would raise objections to his use of the Old Testament there.

But from there on, it gets kinda strange. We see on multiple occasions, the New Testament authors citing outside sources and using them authoritatively. Jesus seems to be very familiar with the work of rabbis a generation removed, and most famously, Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 recounts the common Jewish tradition of a traveling rock in the wilderness (albeit giving it a new Christological purpose).

And then there’s all the instances when the Old Testament gets reinterpreted. Jesus does it all the time when he’s talking to the Pharisees. With his disciples, he states, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors,’ applying Isaiah’s suffering servant passage to himself even though the prophet wrote it about the nation of Israel. Even more blatantly, Jesus reinterprets when he revokes the “eye for an eye of Exodus 21.

The gospel writers act similarly when they speak of fulfilled prophecies. Take for instance, Matthew’s claim that Jesus was foretold to return home from Egypt, citing Hosea 11:1 which references Israel’s exodus out of slavery.

The New Testament writers even reinterpret concrete narratives from the Old Testament, repurposing the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, Elijah, and others. In preaching and writing, the voices of the New Testament go far beyond the original, intended meanings of their Jewish ancestors. 

What the Bible Claims About Itself

Like most books, the Bible doesn’t spend much time at all telling its readers how to understand itits sort of implied. Most importantly, it assumes the reader knows what genre is. The Bible makes the assumption readers will adapt their expectations depending on the genre theyre readingtheyll be a little looser for poetry and proverbs and a little stricter for theological discourse.

But there are some places where the Bible is a little more overt. Take Psalm 119 (especially v. 160) for example: God’s law (which it is safe to understand as synecdoche for Scripture) is described as true and good and everlasting. These are all three very ambiguous terms but certainly lead us toward Scripture is something to be trusted.

In the New Testament, we get plenty of passages like Matthew 1:22-23 that confirm for us that the Christian writers are writing out of a Jewish worldview and accept those Scriptures. It is not made clear from verses like these, however, whether or not the writers view their work as an extension of the Old Testament.

In the beginning remarks of the Gospel of John, some link between the Son of God—“the Word”—and Scripture—often called God’s word (lowercase)—is implied, though, it is hard to say what that may be besides deriving from the Father. A few chapters later in John 5:39, Jesus makes the shocking statement, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” Here, Jesus seems to be acknowledging the irony of the Jewish leaders relying on the Old Testament scriptures to confirm their beliefs when they are the same scriptures that confirm Christ. This passage demonstrates that Scripture can be (sincerely?) read wrong and misconstrued, as well as echoing Matthew 23:23 in its claim that not all Scripture is equal.

In the epistles we have a few more meta-claims on the Inspiration of Scripture. In 2 Timothy 3:16, the author says that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” This is the verse on Inspiration most of us are familiar with. But really, it continues to raise questions: (1) What is (all) Scripture? And (2) what does it mean to be breathed out by God? Regarding the first question, the writer gives us little to suggest he is referencing more than the Old Testament (though it’s possible). For the second question, while God-breathed has taken on a wide range of meaning through the centuries, our best option for understanding its meaning is looking at its few occurrences elsewhere in the Bible. It seems to mean almost exclusively to give something life—notably the man in Genesis 2 and dry bones in Ezekiel 37. What that means for the inanimate words of Scripture is hard to say, though the second half of the verse may shed some light: Scripture is useful for edification purposes as it relates to righteousness. “Righteousness” can be a legal term or a religious term, but it almost certainly cannot be a scientific, literary, mathematical, or historical term. Scripture, as described by Paul in 1 Timothy, is useful for edification in matters relevant to the faith.

Let’s wrap up by looking at one of the latest epistles to be written, 2 Peter, which makes some interesting claims. In 1:20-1, it says,

Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s  own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

This is huge as it shares significantly more than 2 Timothy. The first major claim is that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation,” and it is fairly straight-forward. However, the second line,“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man,” which is restating the first (as is common in the Bible) may refine our understanding of the first sentence. Also, it is ambiguous what is meant by “carried along”—does it mean that the Spirit dictated to each author? Did He continually motivate each author to write? Or, is it referring to the whole canon in that the Spirit is the one that guided the overall project from Paul’s letters to canonization? It is unclear. A couple chapters further, we find 2 Peter 3:16, which gives perhaps the most impressive claim yet:

…just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Again, there are two ideas of note here: (1) Paul’s writings are deemed hard to understand and able to be twisted, and (2) the author lumps Paul’s writings in with “other Scriptures.” So the first point has already been touched on. The author delivers an almost direct attack on the Restorationist ideal that Scripture can be interpreted by anyone and lead to the same conclusions. The second point is a slightly less pertinent to our discussion but important for interpreting the passages above. While it is not the necessary reading of the phrase (since “other” has a range of meanings and “Scripture” could easily be interpreted as anything written), it does seem to be the best reading that the author views the early church writings of Paul as comparable in some fashion to the Old Testament writings.

So bringing this all together, are there any conclusions we can make? The first is the clearest: the biblical writers viewed the other biblical writing that came before them as important and instructive, especially the Old Testament. Scripture, while seen as constant, was able to be misunderstood at any time. There is a possible connection between Scripture and Jesus as well as Adam (whom Paul did not flatter; see Romans 5). And according to the author of 2 Peter, the divine will, over against human will, is commanding and present in the production of the Scriptures.

While this is important and not nothing—and admittedly I may have missed something or explained a passage poorly—it clearly does not hold all of the extensive doctrine of inspiration later attributed to it.

Section Break

So what we find in the Bible faces us with a couple questions.

First, are we to interpret as the writers interpreted? While the authors of Scripture sometimes read the Bible as we normally would, they often demonstrate a hermeneutic very unlike our own. Most of us, even if we don’t realize it, practice the historical-grammatical method when reading the Bible and believe the Bible means today the same thing it meant then. So we’re put in a difficult situation—do we give the writers a pass because they’re special? Do we mold our interpretive style to be more like them? Or do we simply learn to live with those oddities?

Second, do the claims made by the Bible line it up with any of those Inspiration models outlined in last week’s post? Immediately, we can rule out Dictation and the last two—Philosophical and Coincidental—but beyond that it gets a little bit harder. What we find laid out across both testaments could describe multiple modes of Inspiration. Perhaps a better question to ask is, Could a Bible written by any of the other Inspiration models produce the claims we find in Scripture? I think, likely, any of them could.

These are some important first step when figuring out how to read the Bible. None of this is to say that your thoughts on “Silence of Scripture,” progressive revelation,  the authority of the Bible for Christians, what Inspiration means, or how interpretation ought to be done are necessarily wrong—but hopefully what we realize is that the Bible is not unambiguous on these subjects. We cannot use claims of inerrancy to prove inerrancy—that gets us nowhere. Instead, we have to wrestle with how we are suppose to trust this compilation of stories and histories and poems and epistles.

But we’re not alone in that struggle. We have 2000 years of company—and that’s what we’ll look at next week.

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