Study Bibles with reference notes have become very popular in the last few decades. While the common refrain of “my Bible says in the notes . . . ” has derailed many group discussions, Bible study notes do more good than harm. These notes often provide helpful cultural or linguistic information to help modern readers understand the author’s intended meaning. One example of this benefit is found in Jesus’ well-known interaction with Nicodemus in John 3.
John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ 3:8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (NET Bible)
Those who have not studied Greek usually do not realize that in
this passage the English word “spirit,” “Spirit,” and
“wind”are translations of one Greek word: pneuma.
The New Testament came through first-century writers who held to particular assumptions and a particular worldview. As twenty first-century Christians seek to discern what those writings are saying to them, they carry different assumptions and a different worldview. This discrepancy often causes contemporary Christians to interpret the Bible in a way that the authors never intended. For those Christians who hold to a high view of scripture, the author’s intended meaning is inspired by God and the guide and authority for faith and practice today. It is crucial, therefore, to be aware of our assumptions and the subtle ways they steer our understanding of the text.
Today’s blog addresses individualism. Western 21st century culture sees everything through the lens of individualism. Merriam-Webster defines individualism as “the belief that the needs of each person are more important than the needs of the whole society or group.” Western Christians unconsciously adopt this individualistic worldview because it surrounds us every day and in every interaction. In contrast, the biblical writers and their audiences were surrounded by assumptions that emphasized the community. While the biblical texts also addressed individuals, they did so through the communities these individuals belonged to. Contemporary Christians tend to read the Bible in the opposite direction–as if the Bible is addressed primarily to individuals and secondarily to the communities these individuals belong to.
The disconnect between 21st century versus 1st century assumptions manifests itself both in theology and practice. From my experience as a pastor, the affect on practice is more pervasive because assumptions guide every person whether they think about them or not. Churches are filled with people who interpret the Bible, their lives, their relationship to God, and their relationship to others through the lens of individualism. Continue reading
In the Bible, God spoke through and to particular people at a particular time in history. How can we rightly understand the Spirit-inspired author’s meaning as intended, so we can communicate and apply that inspired meaning to contemporary hearers (including ourselves)? These questions are answered through biblical interpretation (a.k.a. hermeneutics). Too often, Christians misinterpret the author’s intention because they do not understand elements from the author’s world, or they read their own worldview, culture, and literary conventions into the author’s writing in a way far different than the author would have intended. A basic knowledge of interpretative methods helps avoid misinterpretation. In an effort to give a simplified “how-to” of interpretation, I have created the following “10 How-to Steps of Biblical Interpretation.”
A Basic “How-to” of Biblical Interpretation
Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral is a terrific book on biblical interpretation and should be on every Christian worker’s reading list. For those who cannot work through its 500 pages of interpretive meatiness, the following steps will borrow from and distill Osborne’s (and other’s) work to produce a how-to for interpreting the Bible. Continue reading