Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Understanding the Bible

“Faith and integrity are the foundations of a relational hermeneutic.” David Mackin

It is impossible to come to the text of the Bible without preconceptions. Our language, our various cultures, our questions, our way of reasoning, what we have been taught, our history, all these and more will color what we read. Because of this, how we interpret the Bible will probably reflect just as much on who we are and who we are willing to become as on what the Bible says. We need to remember that we may start off approaching the Bible as a discerner of truth but, in the end, the Bible will be discern the truth about us.

Does this mean that no one can know with confidence what the Bible means? Definitely not! My main premise is this: If we believe the Bible, the Holy Spirit can teach us, over time, how the Bible is to be interpreted and understood. Understanding the Bible is more than a process of reading the words and trying to figure out what they mean. Of course what they mean is of utmost importance, yet what they mean needs to be coupled with belief in order to be understood. Learning to understand the Bible is like getting to know a person who grows into your best friend or marriage partner. It is a continual process of discovery. Sometimes you are confused about their behavior, but with careful listening, trust, humility, and patience these problems can be worked out. If we approach the scriptures relationally, instead of as a mere observer, we put ourselves into the best position to genuinely understand them.

Millions of people over the centuries have discovered that through the words of the Bible a relationship with the true God, the one who made it all, can be experienced. It is this relationship that the understanding of the Bible fosters. Of course, this assertion is open to contradiction and a need for proof. This is also recognized within the pages of the Bible itself. Elijah had such a controversy with the prophets of Baal. Elijah and those followers of Baal agreed that the god who answered by fire would be the true God. So today, the god who listens and responds is the true God.

So this relationship with God through the Bible is not a philosophy, although we can develop philosophies about it. Nor is it a religion, although religion can and should be formed around it. It is a relationship with the true creator of it all, with God who responds to us – answers prayers, guides our steps, corrects our behavior, teaches us truth, demonstrates love, becomes our friend and our God. My contention is that all this can come through a belief of the content of the Bible.

To understand what the authors of the Bible wanted us to understand by their writings we must believe what they have written because they expected to be believed. Just like when we are getting to know a new person criticism does not provide a framework for friendship, so approaching the Bible with a disbelieving, critical frame of mind will close the book to us. True understanding is firmly rooted in believing what is written.

As philosophers have taught us, all learning takes place in a context that is in itself defined by a larger context, and so on and on. Experiencing the intended reality of what was written is both the Biblical writers' and the Holy Spirit’s context and goal. The Apostle John is explicit about this when near the end of his gospel we read, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This experience of the reality of what the Bible refers to is a product of faith, integrity, understanding, and obedience.

Paul taught that we are to use his teaching as a pattern for our teaching. In order to see his pattern we need to be aware of how we affect our interpretation. It is vitally important that we become aware of who we are and how we affect the information we take in. Too often we are tempted to conform Paul to our own way of thinking. By allowing Paul the freedom to be Paul we can then have him teach us. This is true of all the scripture. Approaching scripture as a learner, a disciple, will bring us into the arena in which the authors of the Bible wanted us to be. More than that, approaching the Bible as a newborn child of God will assure us of a set of preconceptions that conform to the Biblical writers hope for us, and will thereby help us greatly in understanding the scripture in the way intended by those authors.

I want to give you an idea of what some of my preconceptions were. Since none of us can avoid them, you should know which were mine. I was not raised as a Christian, but as an atheist who, wanting to be open and broadminded, called himself an agnostic. Still, I was competitive enough to show those people who did believe in a ‘god’ how unfounded their beliefs were. I was even asked to leave the Boy Scouts because I was irreligious. If I had to pick a religion or philosophy to believe, Christianity would be well after the last on my list!

One evening when I was about sixteen I was lying on the floor listening to some music it occurred to me that there must be some kind of objective reality, some kind of ultimate truth. That night I started my quest. I had no idea where I was going. All I knew was that I did not know. I searched drugs to “expand” my consciousness. I read about and dabbled in some of the “--isms”: Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism, Shamanism, hedonism (if it feels good, do it) and Epicureanism. I also searched philosophy, astrology, palmistry, I Ching divination and the writings of Madam Blavatsky. Whatever I was looking for, it was not there. I grew depressed. The Viet Nam war was taking its toll on our society. The phoniness of the society screamed at me from the type of houses people lived in, to the way the streets were laid out, to the way money was adored. They all shouted nothingness. The depression became profound.

It was about 8:00 p.m. on December 28, 1970 when my sister called me on the telephone from Port Townsend, Washington. I was in Detroit, Michigan. She led me to the Lord over the telephone. I confessed that it was my sin that had separated me from God, while asking God for forgiveness with an appeal for Him to become the Lord of my life. When we were done with the conversation I knew that I knew just three simple things: I met God, His name is Jesus, and the Bible is true. My quest was over.

These three simple things now formed the bedrock of my Christianity. The part that is most germane to our present discussion is the realization about the Bible being true. I came to the Bible as a believer. Prior to my conversion I remember reading only three portions of the Bible. One portion was the first few chapters of Genesis. I had a friend who, as a Catholic, believed the Bible. I knew from my parents, who were Unitarians, that the Bible was filled with contradictions. I told him so and he protested. I decided to prove it to him right then and there. So I began reading the Bible at the beginning, in Genesis. Before too long I had my first contradiction. It read that on the first day God made light. Yet on the fourth day the sun was made. Now how can you have light without the sun? I pointed this out to my friend. I was as smug as I could be. I had just succeeded in taking one of the more difficult passages of scripture and twisting it to my own ends.

The second portion of the Bible was Ecclesiastes. The person who recommended it felt I could identify with its sentiments. Since I was already depressed over the meaninglessness of life, they were right. After reading this book of the Bible I dropped out of High School and society and the alternate culture of the day caught me. I did not truly understand what was written, I could only see those parts with which I could empathize. Since I could not see the hope at the end of the book, I was left with a vision of life ‘under the sun’, a life without the light of God. I agreed with its sentiment that life seems meaningless. I received no light there.

The third portion of the Bible that I read was 1 John. Someone asked me to read it, so I did. It made no sense at all. It was like random words on a page, left by someone for who knows what reason. All it did was leave a guilty feeling. Who needed that? I certainly did not appreciate these guilty feelings. The philosophy of the age rejected guilt as something from the ‘uptight’ Victorian era. I was a modern person who knew that guilt was a feeling based on false premises like right and wrong. We all knew that right and wrong were relative concepts, thus making guilt a pain that had no meaning. Consequently, guilt must be rejected. So I did not reread 1 John.

These perceptions of the Bible, which I had before I met God, never could provided an adequate foundation for the interpretation of Scripture. My primary preconceptions are those that I received when I became a Christian. The Bible is true, and Jesus, whom I met, is the Son of the God of whom the Bible speaks. This is what the Holy Spirit taught me. My approach to the Bible from this beginning was one of a believer who wanted to learn. Over time, this basic presupposition has proved itself correct over and over again. Therefore, I am unabashedly Christocentric in my approach to the Bible. Reading the Bible in the light of the faith provide by the Holy Spirit, I believe, is a must in order to understand it. This is the great premise upon which everything stands!

So you, as a potential interpreter, need to first examine your own heart and see what your motivations are in approaching the Bible. Remember when Jesus was asked by the lawyer in Luke 10:25-29 (NIV) about inheriting eternal life. Jesus replied, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And the lawyer answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Jesus replied, "You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Our motivation is critical for understanding. Is your motivation to be a believer and love God, or something else, like justifying yourself? Where you start determines much of where you will end up.


Anonymous said...

Maybe your last statement is true... However there are many that testify that they have picked up the Bible not knowing what they were looking for and as they read they met Jesus.

We have to say that the Spirit makes the Word the Word. How He does it, I have no clue, but as we look at the words, they become the Word and bring life.

Steven Ganz said...

I'm confused. What did you think I meant by what I said? Finding Jesus in the Spirit inspired word is what I thought I was talking about.

Anonymous said...

Here are your closing statements, "Our motivation is critical for understanding. Is your motivation to be a believer and love God, or something else, like justifying yourself? Where you start determines much of where you will end up."

That is all I was responding to.

mamma said...

Both Steves -

It is interesting that you are both looking at the same words and seeing different emphases in those words. Doesn't that illustrate the point being made - That our history influences our hermeneutic?
I understand you both - and the answer is YES. You can find Jesus when you aren't looking and you can shut him out in your pride.