I. How To Study the Bible
A. Culture shock
What Thorkild Jacobsen had to say about Sumerian religion should give us pause as we consider the Bible:
To the student of Sumerian religion such understanding is not readily come by. Remoteness in time and great difference of culture separate him, and the forms of religious response meaningful to him, from those of the ancients; imperfect knowledge of the language closes his ear to overtones; different habits of thought and differences in values tend to leave him uncomprehending or mistaken. He must wonder at every step whether his interpretation is leaving the ancient forms dry, empty of content, or whether he is unconsciously filling them with his own new wine only to shatter them. But no way is open to him in his dilemma other than to persevere in attempts to understand with continued attention to inner consistency in his results.
In reading the Bible, the student should experience a certain amount of culture shock. What's that? Alvin Toffler described it well in his book, Future Shock:
Culture shock is the effect that immersion in a strange culture has on the unprepared visitor. Peace Corps volunteers suffer from it in Borneo or Brazil. Marco Polo probably suffered from it in Cathay. Culture shock is what happens when a traveler suddenly finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where a "fixed price" is negotiable, where to be kept waiting in an outer office is no cause for insult, where laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when the familiar psychological cues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.
The culture shock phenomenon accounts for much of the bewilderment, frustration, and disorientation that plagues Americans in their dealings with other societies. It causes a breakdown in communication, a misreading of reality, an inability to cope. [Alvin Toffler. Future Shock. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. pp. 10-11]
The Australians speak English, they live in a modern industrialized society, watch TV and do many of the same things Americans do. "Waltzing Matilda" is a song known to just about every Australian, and Americans have heard the tune and may know a few of the words:
Once a jolly swag man camped by a billy-bong,
Under the shade of a kulibar tree,
And he sang as he sat and waited for his billy-boil,
"You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me."
If Americans have difficulty understanding a simple song written in their own language by people almost like themselves, is it any wonder that we moderns should have difficultly fully understanding the Bible? "Waltzing Matilda" has nothing to do with dancing or girls; instead it refers to walking with a kind of knapsack. A "swag man" is a hobo, and "billy-bong" is a brook or pond. A "kulibar" tree is a eucalyptus tree, and "billy-boil" is coffee.
B. When reading the Bible, remember:
1. We must not assume that idioms or idiomatic ideas in the Bible mean the same thing that they do in modern English.
2. Be careful to notice how the Biblical documents are structured.
3. As we approach the Bible, we must approach it as an exciting adventure in a foreign country.
C. What are Some Basic Guiding Principles for Bible Study?
Certain presuppositions -- those hypotheses that are accepted at the start of an argument as self-evident (like axioms in geometry) -- should be stated at the outset. They can be listed as a series of eight points. The first three are basic presuppositions which underlie modern science, and these same basic presuppositions should also underlie anyone's approach to theology.
1. There is an actually existing external universe.
2. The external universe is attainable accurately by our senses.
3. The external universe is orderly, endowed with cause and effect and it follows the laws of logic.
What are the laws of logic? There are three: the Principle of Identity, the Principle of Noncontradiction, and the Principle of Excluded Middle.
a. The Principle of Identity
Simply stated, the first of the fundamental laws is a tautology. If any statement is true, then it is true. Some have criticized this first principle on the basis that things change. For instance, in 1790 one could make the statement: "The United States of America is made up of 13 states." But obviously such a statement is not true today. However, the fact of change in human affairs does not negate this principle of logic. Statements which change over time are said to be elliptical, or incomplete statements. Thus, the statement "The United States of America is made up of 13 states" is a partial formulation of the statement, "The United States of America was made up of 13 states in 1790." Such a statement is as true today as it was in 1790. Thus, as Copi said, "When we confine our attention to complete or non elliptical formulations, the Principle of Identity is perfectly true and unobjectionable."
b. The Principle of Non contradiction
Simply proposed, this asserts that "no statement can be both true and false." Or to take it a step further, "a given thing cannot be and not be in the same way and to the same extent at the same time." This is a vital principle, without which reasoned thinking is not possible. While it may seem obvious that a given object cannot be both an apple and a peach, this principle is often ignored or twisted out of shape by both secularists and theologians.
The word "paradox" is used sometimes to describe contradictions -- contradictions that, some would say, must be accepted. For instance, the famous experiments with light, which indicate that under certain experimental conditions, light can be demonstrated absolutely to be made of particles, while under other experimental conditions, light can be demonstrated absolutely to be made of waves. A contradiction! In some circles it has been concluded that light is both and neither and we must live with the contradiction.
Occam would shout "poppycock" to that conclusion. The simpler explanation, by making use of Occam's razor, is to say that the experiments have settled nothing, and that further study is needed. We can't just throw up our hands and say, "oh well, it's both; lets say light is made of 'wavicles'." What the heck is a 'wavicle'?
The same thing arises in theology in attempts to explain the Trinity, the relationship of free will to divine sovereignty, or how a good, all powerful God could permit sin. Too often, theologians are satisfied with the paradox -- "the apparent contradiction" -- and leave it at that. Again, Occam's razor would simply slice through the gobbledygook and tell the theologians that they have more work to do. Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine, writing about nature (the general revelation of God), made a very perceptive point, which has definite implications for understanding the Bible (the special revelation of God):
Nature poses many riddles but contains no contradictions. By solving one of her puzzles, therefore, we are guaranteed to learn something -- and the weirder, the more impossible the paradox seems at first, the more mind-expanding will be its ultimate resolution. [F. Wilczek and B. Devine. Longing for the Harmonies: Themes and Variations From Modern Physics, New York: W.W. Norton, 1988, p. 218]
What all this means then, is that contradictions cannot be real. Such a conclusion is a very hopeful and useful tool, and has been of immense impetus to scientific research, because this principle of non contradiction assures the researcher, in whatever field, that there is, indeed, an answer to any conundrum. And if there is an answer, then it is possible to find it.
On a personal level, this principle of non contradiction has some serious implications. Every day, we discover people who, within their lives, are not living up to the principle. George Orwell described the problem as "doublethink". An older word for this sort of person is simply "hypocrite". The Bible calls such a person a "double-minded man":
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. [James 1:5-8]
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [James 4:8]
Notice the sheer idiocy and irrationality of the hypocrisy: a person goes to God to request something that He has promised to give, but then doesn't believe God will give it. Such an attitude irrationally contradicts the truthfulness and goodness of God, not to mention explicit biblical statements that God does not lie.
The second passage in James 4:8 goes even further, equating hypocrisy with sin, or better yet, portrays the sinner as being a hypocrite by definition. After all, a Christian claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit, cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ, a new creature, and yet he sins. Contradiction.
Of all things a nonbeliever delights in most, it is to point out the inconsistency of believers. I give two examples:
Catholic theology teaches that the Pope and Church are infallible. The doctrines and traditions handed down from the fathers are as much the words of God as the Bible. Yet, thousands who claim to be Catholic, feel perfectly justified ignoring the Catholic Church's teaching on birth control, abortion, or women in the Church. How can this be?
Doublethink; hypocrisy; inconsistency. To be a consistent Catholic, to obey the concept of non contradiction, the follower of Rome must accept what the Catholic Church says in all things. Otherwise, that one becomes by definition, no longer Catholic -- but Protestant. By contrast, Baptists claim (in the Protestant tradition) that the Bible alone is authoritative, that the individual Christian is free to interpret the Bible for himself, and that all believers are priests, equal before God. Yet in practice, the standard, traditional interpretation of the Bible is the true authority, and to dissent from that interpretation (particularly if you act upon it) will often result in church discipline, censure, and possible expulsion, as the pastor alone is really in charge of things. Where then is biblical authority? Where then is soul liberty? Where then is the priesthood of all believers? They are swallowed in doublethink.
What is in our heads rarely matches our practice, and often contradicts other ideas in our heads. Humans are strange that way. Listen to George Orwell:
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -- if all records told the same tale -- then the lie passed into history and became truth. "Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. "Reality control," they called it; in Newspeak, "doublethink."
"Stand easy!" barked the instructress, a little more genially.
Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself -- that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink. [George Orwell, 1984, pp. 35-36]
c. The Principle of the Excluded Middle
The principle of the excluded middle asserts that "any statement is either true or false". Some have objected that if this principle is accepted one is forced into a "two-valued orientation" which implies that everything is "either-or", with no middle ground possible. Such an objection results from a misunderstanding of the principle. If you have something that is gray, for instance, the statements "this is black" or "this is white" are both false. When faced with a situation where one is given such statements, "this is white" or "this is black", while both statements cannot be true, they very easily might both be false. When one restricts oneself to statements that are unambiguous and precise, then the principle of excluded middle is perfectly valid.
In other words, what this principle asserts is that real contradiction is not possible, only apparent contradiction, the result of limited language or data. By the principle of excluded middle, when faced with the question of whether light is made of waves or particles, since the experiments contradict each other, it is best to assume that light is neither wave nor particle, but something else: gray.
4. The Bible is unique.
The Bible should not be viewed as equivalent to a work of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was brilliant, but his writings are a purely human creation. The Bible, on the other hand, is not a purely human creation: it is the very Word of God--God's special revelation of himself to the human race.
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [2 Peter 1:20-21]
5. Stand in humility before the text of scripture.
When something in the Bible seems contradictory, or when something does not appear to make sense, the reader should assume that he or she is failing to understand something. One should question his or her own reasoning abilities and knowledge, since our reason and knowledge are in a finite, corrupted, and fallen state. Do not question the reliability of the Bible.
Trust in Yahweh with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight. [Proverbs 3:5-6]
Yahweh said to Job:
"Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!"
Then Job answered Yahweh:
"I am unworthy--how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but have no answer--
twice, but I will say no more."
Then Yahweh spoke to Job out of the storm:
"Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you will answer me.
Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Do you have an arm like God's,
and can your voice thunder like His?
Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at every proud man and bring him low,
look at every proud man and humble him,
crush the wicked where they stand.
Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you." [Job 40:1-14]
6. The reader must always ask "Where is it written?"
Just because a good Christian says it or writes it, just because the pastor says it, or just because "that's what I've always believed", does not necessarily make it true. What does the Bible really say?
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. [Acts 17:11]
7. Do not be afraid of the Bible.
The ultimate source of authority for Christians is the Bible, not our theological preconceptions, not our cultural preferences or fears. If what the Bible says does not square with one of our theological ideas, then we must change our theological idea! We must not go through strange contortions to get the text to support our preferred viewpoint.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path....
8. Conform to the Bible.
The reader must be careful to make his or her life conform to Scripture, not Scripture to his or her life. Be aware of one's own cultural biases. Do not read into the text what is not there.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"
He replied "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is "Corban" (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." [Mark 7:5-13]
D. Theological Method
Questions to ask yourself as you read:
1. What does the Bible really say?
2. What does the Bible mean?
3. How does the Bible apply to me?
Walter E. Kaiser, Jr. wrote:
The grand object of grammatical and historical interpretation is to ascertain...the specific usage of words as employed by an individual writer and/or as prevalent in a particular age. And the most fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have only one signification in one and the same connection. [Kaiser. Toward an Exegetical Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981 p. 88]
F. What are some standards for responsible interpretation?
1. The meaning of a biblical statement is going to be the ordinary, normal meaning of the words: a meaning in keeping with the context, idiom, and purpose of the given author. Therefore, it is important for us to remember that listing a reference "does not necessarily mean that one's interpretation of it is faithful to the biblical meaning." [Lewis. p. 30] Cults are commonly guilty of messing up at this point. Let's be careful not to be like them.
2. The meaning of the biblical statements should fit the historical and cultural setting of the writer and readers. That's why archaeology and the study of history are valuable. The frame of reference can't be ignored. We must be very careful not to interpret the Bible through our own culture.
3. The meaning of a sentence is the one that best fits the writer's context. The usage an author makes of a word is what is important. The definition of a word is contextually determined. The etymology is of hardly any importance in truly gaining an understanding of a word. The sentence is the basic unit of a writer's thought. "Then the sentence should be understood in relation to the other books in its Testament. And the two Testaments need to be related to each other." [Lewis, p. 30]
4. The Bible doesn't contradict itself.
5. The intended meaning of the text is going to be the literal historical-grammatical one. There is not a "deeper" or "secret" meaning. Avoid allegorization and spiritualization of the Bible. Such techniques come from the Middle Ages, and are the province of such modern groups as Theosophy, Christian Science, and the New Age Movement. There is no place for such things in a truly rational approach to Scripture.
6. Scriptural passages are comprehensible as they are related to, and informed by others. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them -- yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
A passage like this informs our understanding of passages that refer to the "works" that Christians do. Rather than imagining that "works" passages contradict the gospel, a passage like this clarifies the intent. Salvation by grace has inevitable outward manifestations. Any work we do, the effort we make, is actually God working through us. God does the work, not us. Which of a given possible interpretations is correct can be demonstrated by determining which passages inform other passages. How? Through recognizing the proper cause and effect. For instance, wringing a nose produces blood (Proverbs 30:33). However, blood does not produce the wringing of a nose.
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