How to Study the Bible eCourse #2
The Interpretive Journey
(5 Steps to Interpreting God’s Word)
Listen to Scot Keen, a teacher at Ethnos360 Bible Institute (founded in 1955 as New Tribes Bible Institute), talk about the interpretive journey. This clip was taken from our Hermeneutics class. (6:26 watch time)
So how do we begin? Is there a method we can count on to help us navigate through God’s Word? Is there a consistent way we can approach any passage, whether in the Old Testament or New, the stories or the poetry, and even prophecy?
A Method In the Madness
Some passages have fairly direct application, but others you wouldn’t just copy directly. For example, you wouldn’t go around picking up snakes, expecting them to turn into a staff, just because God commanded Moses to do so (Exodus 4:3). You wouldn’t smack the nearest rock with a stick and expect water to come out of it, since that’s how God told Moses to get water for the Israelites (Exodus 17). You wouldn’t march around the house of your enemy and hope that it collapses after 7 days, just because that is how God ordered the Israelites to conquer Jericho (Joshua 5). Of course not!
You understand that these commands were given to specific people and not to you. There are lessons to be learned from these stories, but they were not written to or about you personally.
Other passages are not so simple to understand.
The method we are about to discuss is a synopsis of a five step process laid out in a textbook called Grasping God’s Word, by J. Scott Duvall and Daniel J. Hays. The authors encourage us to think of interpreting the Bible as a journey, a journey to understand what God has said. We use a large portion of this textbook here at New Tribes Bible Institute, and have found it to be an invaluable resource to our students as they learn the art of biblical hermeneutics.
At times it can be easy to confuse what God’s Word is trying to communicate to us. The five steps are simply tools by which we can minimize this confusion. Each of these steps seeks to bring you, as a student of God’s Word, closer to a true interpretation of any given passage.
The Five Steps
- Understand what the passage meant to its original readers. (Context)
The first step involves asking the question, what did this passage mean to its original audience? It’s not yet time to be thinking about our current culture, situation, or time in history at this point in the journey. We are thinking only of the people this particular portion of Scripture was initially written to. Who were they? What was their situation? What was the Lord trying to communicate to them, and why? This step is going to require you to put on your investigator’s hat – it will take close observation and most likely some digging into outside resources. Jot down all your notes to help you stay organized and get a clear picture of the original situation!
- Grasp the differences between the original readers and us. (Observation)
Next ask, What are the differences between the original audience and us? How far of a jump is it to cross the “river” that separates us? This too will take some digging. As you research, ask questions like, What was different about their culture in comparison with ours? Are they under the Old Covenant of the Mosaic Law, or are they living in the Church age? Do they play a different role in God’s plan than I do (example: Were they apostles? Were they a prophet? Were they a king?). Keep a list of all the differences between yourself and the audience to get a good view of how big the separation is.
- Find the consistent and applicable theology within the passage. (Interpretation)
This step is absolutely crucial to a correct interpretation of Scripture, and can also tend to be the most challenging. What you are looking for here is a principle in the passage that overrides time, culture, and people. It should be a truth that is equally applicable to us as it would be to the original audience.
In Grasping God’s Word, this overarching truth is referred to as the theological principle. The book states, “Remember that this theological principle is part of the meaning. Your task is not to create the meaning but to discover the meaning intended by the author. As God gives specific expressions to specific biblical audiences, he is also giving universal theological teachings for all of his people through these same texts.” 1
Duvall and Hays also state that this theological principle needs to meet certain standards in order for us to be confident we are coming to an accurate conclusions.
According to them, the standards are these:
“The principle should be reflected in the text.
The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
The principle should not be culturally bound.
The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
The principle should be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience.” 2
All this information can be confusing at first. Let’s look at an example to help clear things up. We’re going to try to find the consistent and applicable theology in a couple of Old Testament verses.
Exodus 2:23-25 says this:
“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel- and God knew.”
In order to come to a conclusion about the theology of this passage, we need to apply the first two steps of interpretation.
First, what did this passage meant to the original audience?
We can pretty briefly observe some basic facts:
-This portion of Scripture was recorded for the Israelites, and was clearly about the Israelites.
-The Israelites were descendants of Abraham, who was God’s friend. God had promised to bless him with many offspring. He had made a covenant that Abraham’s children would be His chosen people, and that He would bless them with a great land and many possessions (Genesis 15).
-When we read the surrounding text, we find that this particular generation of Israelites was enslaved to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. God had predicted that this would happen, and had promised that He would deliver them (Genesis 15:13-14).
-Immediately preceding this chapter, we read about the beginning of Moses’ life, an Israelite who had been adopted by the princess of Egypt and brought up as Pharaoh’s grandson. When Moses witnessed an Egyptian being cruel to one of the Israelite slaves, he killed the Egyptian. Upon finding out, Pharaoh sought to kill him, and Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, where he married, settled down with his wife’s family, and became one of his father-in-laws shepherds. In the chapters following the verses we are looking at, we will find that Moses is the man God uses to deliver the people of Israel from slavery.
Now that we’ve taken noted the facts and observed the surrounding context, we can move on to the second step, which is to grasp the differences between the original readers and us.
What are the differences between our culture, time, and situation from the Israelites’?
Here are a few things we can observe:
-We are not Israelites
-We are not in Egypt.
-We are likely not physical, literal slaves to another person or entity.
-We are not included in the Abrahamic Covenant.
Now let’s move on to the step we are focusing on in this example. What is the consistent and applicable theology found in these verses?
We’ve already gotten a good picture of the original readers’ situation, and we know some of the basic differences between us and them. But now, in order to find the overarching truth being communicated, let’s jot down a few of the similarities between us and them.
Think about it for a minute:
-Although we aren’t Israelites, are we God’s people? Yes. Most of us are not Israelites, but as believers we do belong to the Church, the Bride of Christ. We are his people, even though we have a different history with Him than Israel does.
-We may not be literal slaves in the way we think of slavery, but are there things in life that enslave or keep us in bondage in any way? I think so. We experience spiritual bondage through sin, emotional and mental bondage through abuse in relationships, and at times find ourselves bound and helpless in the face of life’s circumstances.
-We aren’t part of the Abrahamic Covenant, meaning God has not promised us possessions or a special land, but because of our participation in the blood of Jesus Christ, God has promised us certain things. We have been given things in Him, although it’s not the same covenant and we are promised different blessings.
These similarities provide a certain amount of unity between us and the original audience. Because we now have a good picture of both our differences and how we connect, we can more easily draw truths out of the passage that would apply to both of us.
Now we simply state out the theological principle we believe is being communicated in the text. In our passage I’ve drawn out this truth:
“God is attentive to His people and knows all about their sufferings.”
Does this statement meet our criteria for consistent and applicable theology?
Yes! It is obviously in the text, it can be applied to any situation, it can be applied to any culture or time period, it is a principle that can be found elsewhere in Scripture (Genesis 16:13, Psalm 18, Psalm 55, 2 Cor. 1:3-4), and it applies both to us and to the original Israelites it was written about.
Now that we are beginning to grasp how to draw out a consistent and applicable theology, let’s move on to the fourth step.
- Compare the theology you’ve drawn out of your passage to the rest of Scripture. (Interpretation)
Ask yourself, does this principle line up with what the rest of God’s Word? Is it theologically sound from what I know of the rest of the Bible? This system of checks and balances will help prevent you from building a faulty theology. If you get confused on one passage, there are others to help clear up what God is actually trying to communicate. Using a Bible with cross-references may help link you to passages with similar ideas in them so that you can compare your findings. Be sure to run ideas you are unsure about past other believers who also faithfully study the Word!
5. Understand what the passage says to us today. (Application)
In this final step it is time to take the overarching principle or theology in the passage and apply it to ourselves. Because you have made sure that the principle or principles you have interpreted from your passage are timeless, consistent, and applicable to any culture or people group, you can safely bring it into your own personal life. In the example above, we found the truth that God is attentive to His people and knows all about their sufferings. This is a consistent reality no matter what. You may be struggling with sickness, the loss of a loved one, loneliness, the effects of your own or someone else’s sin, a lost job, confusion and uncertainty, a rebellious child, or a host of other scenarios. In any number of circumstances this truth can be applied to whatever you are wrestling through.
Following these five steps is a process you can rely on to take you through any passage of God’s Word. Though they may take time and effort, they are well worth the investment as you grow in your knowledge of God and what He has communicated.
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