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How to Understand and Apply the Bible

In order for the Bible to apply to our lives it must be understandable. To understand the Bible we need to know how to study it. To study the Bible we need a tried and tested methodology. Here’s a thumbnail sketch on how to understand and apply the Bible.

Pray fervently. The Holy Spirit is the One who reveals and illuminates truth. We need Him to interpret His Word. Without Him we lack understanding (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14). As we seek to understand and apply the Bible, prayer should be interlaced throughout the process.

Use several translations. English Bibles are translations from Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek documents. Different translation philosophies (formal equivalence/word for word, dynamic equivalence/thought for thought) result in slightly different renderings of a text. To glean from a variety of translations, consider using the NIV, NLT, NRSV, ESV, GNB, and the MSG.

Check out the writer. Who wrote the book? Where was he? When did he write it? Why did he write it? To whom did he write it?

Examine the setting. To discern how the original audience understood what was written to them requires a basic knowledge of their geographical location, history, politics, customs and culture.capture

Look at the immediate context. Read what precedes and follows the text under consideration. See how the content of what went before the text and what came after the text, relates to the text.

Investigate the book context. The meaning of a text flows out of its broader context. Understand the purpose, theme(s), section/divisions and flow of thought in the whole book. Ask, “Why did the human author write this book?” and “How should the text be understood in the light of the purpose and theme of the book?”

Give thought to the whole-Bible context. The long term plan should be to read the Bible repeatedly. Aim to compare scripture with scripture. Look for cross-references (other texts that relate to the text being studied). In due course the Bible should exposit itself.

Be aware of the literary genre. The different literary genres of Scripture have different characteristics that require different interpretive techniques. For example, Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme but uses parallelism (the use of synonyms and antonyms to build ideas around other ideas).

Identify figurative language. The Bible uses both literal (words/phrases used according to their proper meaning or precise definition) and figurative (words/phrases that are not literal) language. There are more than a dozen different types of figurative language used in the Bible (e.g. allegory, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, metaphor, personification, paronomasia). To interpret figurative language literally, or literal language figuratively, will corrupt the meaning of the text.

Do word studies. Words are the basic building blocks of the Scriptures. Because the Holy Spirit inspired the words we must carefully unpack the meaning and intent of the words. Use an expository dictionary/lexicon to understand how words are used in a particular context.

Read footnotes and commentaries. Profit from the scholars, theologians and experts. Use multiple sources to avoid theological bias. Take advantage of study Bibles. Consult Bible dictionaries, almanacs, handbooks and commentaries.

Search for Christ. Is the theme of Christ implicit or explicit in the text. Ask, “How should this text be understood as a witness concerning Christ?”

Apply, Apply, Apply! God is more interested in how we act on His Word than in what we know about the Word. The goal is to interpret Scripture in order to apply it. When we fail to apply and obey the Word, we fail in our interpretation of the Word.

A final thought. Understanding the Bible begins with the reality that there is one Author, with one message, and one meaning. That’s not say that the message isn’t multi-faceted, because it is. And it’s not to say that the meaning isn’t nuanced, because it is. But it is to say that our understanding and application of the Bible must be consistent with God’s intended message and meaning.

Recommended Resources:

R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Inter Varsity Press, 2009.

Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, Moody Publishers, 2009.

Stephen H. Wheeler, Fish the Bible! Understand Scripture and Apply it to Life, 2012.

© Scripture Union Canada 2017

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Interpreting the Bible

“If the Bible is indeed God’s Word written, we should spare no pains and grudge no effort to discover what he has said (and says) in Scripture” John R.W. Stott.

So how do we interpret the Bible accurately, so that it’s not just our opinion? What are the basic hermeneutical guidelines? Here are three teachers, three principles, three questions, and three rules:

Three Teachers.

  1. The Holy Spirit. The best interpreter of any book is its author. The Holy Spirit is the only One who can reveal and illuminate truth (cf. Psalm 119:18, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Matthew 11:25-25).
  2. The Church. God reveals truth (from the past to the present) to and through the community of faith (cf. Ephesians 3:18-19, Colossians 3:16).
  3. Personal We must also teach ourselves, yet do so in full dependence and humble submission to the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 12:57, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, 10:15, 2 Timothy 2:7).

 

Three Principles.

  1. Natural Sense (the principle of simplicity). Look first for the obvious and natural (figurative or literal) meaning of the text. Consider the intention of the author/speaker.
  2. Original Sense (the principle of history). The message of Scripture can only be understood as it relates to the circumstances in which it was originally written.
  3. General Sense (the principle of harmony). There is an organic unity to the Bible. Approach the Scripture believing that God doesn’t contradict Himself.

 

Three Questions.

  1. What did it mean to the original audience? The Bible was written for us, but not originally to us. Pay attention to the first life setting (sitz im leben).
  2. What type of literature is it? Each genre of biblical literature must be interpreted on its own terms (the different genres of literature in the Bible includes history, narrative, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, law, parables, gospels, and letters/epistles).
  3. Where does it fit in the Bible’s overall story? Read with the meta-narrative in mind. Track the trajectory of the passage in relation to the major ‘acts’ within the ‘drama’.

 

Three Rules.

  1. Use several good translations so that you are not committed to the exegetical choices of a single translation (e.g. NIV, ESV, NRSV, GNB, NLT).
  2. A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his/her readers.
  3. When we share similar life situations to the first hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as it was to them.

 

And a vital closing comment from Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, “The Bible contains its own hermeneutic … In a word, Jesus is the thread that holds all Scripture together … The Bible has no real meaning unless it is grounded in Christ.”

Have your say. Share three things about interpreting the Bible.

Sources:

Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Zondervan, 2003.

John R.W. Stott, Understanding the Bible, Zondervan, 1999.

© Scripture Union Canada 2017

2 Corinthians 4:5

 


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How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

In How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, the authors, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, equip the reader with an excellent guide on how to study each genre of Scripture and read it intelligently. It’s one of my top ten Bible engagement books. Here are some tidbits from the first two chapters:

The Bible is at the same time both human and divine … it is the Word of God given in human words in history.

The Bible … is not a series of propositions and imperatives; it is not simply a collection of “Sayings from Chairman God”.

The single most serious problem people have with the Bible is not with lack of understanding … but obeying it – putting it into practice.

The task of interpretation involves the student/reader at two levels. First, one has to hear the Word they heard … back then and there (exegesis). Second, you must learn to hear that same Word in the here and now (hermeneutics).

Everyone is an exegete of sorts. The only real question is whether you will be a good one.

The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text.

There are two basic kinds of questions one should ask of every biblical passage: those that relate to context and those that relate to content.

Literary context means first that words only have meaning in sentences, and second that biblical sentences for the most part only have clear meaning in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences.

Correct interpretation … brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.

The most important contextual question you will ever ask – and it must be asked over and over of every sentence and every paragraph – is, “What’s the point?”

You can do good exegesis with a minimum amount of outside help … a good translation, a good Bible dictionary, and good commentaries.

Devotional reading is not the only kind one should do. One must also read for learning and understanding.

The true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.

The trouble with using only one translation … is that you are thereby committed to the exegetical choices of that translation as the Word of God.

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5