Reading and studying Scripture is one of the most important tasks and privileges for Christians. To read the biblical text is to increase our knowledge of God and reaffirm and refine our beliefs. This mandate became more personal after the Reformation, when Bibles were put in the hands of laypeople, and the reading and interpretation of Scripture became an expression of belonging to the priesthood of believers. Thanks to this legacy, and the invention of the printing press, we have our own Bibles in the privacy of our homes, not just in public gatherings.
But with the development of private Scriptures comes questions of interpretation. In our private reading, how can we know we’re always properly interpreting the text? We may believe that we are reading the text and hearing the voice of the Spirit, but how do we know? The privilege of reading Scripture and listening for the Spirit can become a Pandora’s Box of peculiar interpretations.
We all learn to interpret Scripture from some tradition, whether by intent or by osmosis, as we absorb the interpretive approaches of pastors, radio and television ministries, books, and various forms of interaction with other believers in small group Bible studies or informal discussions. With all these interwoven influences, it’s important for the discerning reader of Scripture to consider and avoid some common interpretive mistakes.
Confusing the Scriptures
Many readers make the mistake of treating the Bible as a single literary genre. For example, if someone reads every text as if it were a Pauline epistle (not at all unlikely in some evangelical circles which heavily emphasize Paul), then one may read narrative, wisdom, and poetic texts in wrong ways.
Another common pitfall is to interpret the text in an allegorical fashion, regarding the meaning of the text as something “hidden” behind the literal sense. This can sometimes occur when one reads biblical narratives and conflates the author’s intended meaning with the application of the text for the purposes of the gospel, for its relevance to our modern world, or for one’s personal life. For example, if one reads the story of Noah and interprets the text to mean that the ark primarily refers to Jesus, that the wood construction really refers to the wood of the cross, or that it is ultimately about our own personal journey through a longer period of adversity, we have let our imagination lead us away from the text’s intended meaning regarding God’s faithfulness to Noah and his family.
Perhaps more than anything else, the greatest potential for opening Pandora’s Box resides with a well-intended, reader-response hermeneutic, in which the author’s intent is a much lower priority than what the reader immediately takes the text to mean to and for them, regardless of what the social or literary context of the passage might suggest. While small group Bible studies are a great means of fellowship and Christian growth, they can also be “Exhibit A” of the cacophony of reader-response interpretations.
Does this mean that “what the Bible means to me” is unimportant? Not at all. Rather, proper biblical interpretation requires us to understand that there is a difference between the meaning of the text and its application to our current situation. To achieve healthy biblical interpretation, it is our responsibility to learn the art of biblical interpretation from those in the church who have already developed the skills of proper biblical interpretation.
Beyond the basic message
Does this mean that the “average” Bible reader is hopelessly and hermeneutically deficient without taking a few courses from the local church, Christian college, or seminary? An affirmative response would tend to deny the relative clarity of Scripture and the important role of the Holy Spirit in helping us to understand the things of God. When we speak of the clarity of Scripture (also called “perspicuity“), we refer to the fact that the Bible is sufficiently clear to communicate its basic message. This baseline understanding of the overarching message of the Bible provides us with a set of boundaries that help us to interpret difficult passages according to the “rule of faith,” as the early church fathers might put it.
But the clarity of Scripture is no guarantee that the meaning of the text is protected from twisted interpretations. The affirmation of such clarity does not automatically calm the suspicion of radical, postmodern interpreters who regard finding meaning “in” texts as an exercise in futility or self-projection.
Intimately tied to the clarity of Scripture is the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Reformational tradition is not alone in affirming that the Spirit works in the minds of believers to enable them to apprehend the message of the biblical text. The tradition goes back at least as far back as Augustine, and a biblical text such as I Corinthians 2:10-16 directly speaks to the Spirit’s work in helping us to understand divine things.
Here we must be most careful. When we read that the Spirit helps us to see things that non-Christians would regard as foolishness, does it actually lead us down a path of Bible reading where we are only convinced of proper interpretation when we experience some moment of spiritual “light” on the text? I believe this would be an error that is not only anti-intellectual and resistant to developing any interpretative skill, but also could directly lead back to the cacophony mentioned above. One reason to avoid this essentially Gnostic response is that throughout the Bible we find the command that the faith be taught by those in leadership. If all one needed was the “light” that comes in private Bible reading, then there would be no need for teachers in the church, a clear contradiction of the Biblical witness.
Deepening understanding and practice
The proper response is not to limit Bible reading to corporate worship and pastoral explication, but to develop a discerning mind and “ear” for the Spirit’s voice. This is not a matter of mysticism, but a combination of learning interpretive skills in the context of spiritual formation and acquiring a set of criteria that would help us know whether the Spirit is speaking to us, particularly when moving from interpretation to application. The criteria that would serve us best are Christological and Gospel-centred. In our reading the text, does the text help us to see Christ more clearly and understand the Good News more fully? When we are thinking of application, is our response to the text one which leads to greater Christ-likeness, to the edification of the people of God, and to service in God’s world? I think these guideposts can help us to know whether our interpretation and application are on the right track.
Does the Spirit still speak to us today when we read the Bible? I believe the answer is “Yes,” but that does not mean that what the Spirit wants us to hear is new revelation, but rather something that helps us to deepen our understanding and practice of the old, old story.