Three Eyes for Good Bible Reading
F God inspired the Bible, then understanding the biblical message is critically important. As theologian Wayne Grudem says, “all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.” Can there be anything more vital for a Christian?
Christians believe there is a dual authorship to the Bible. This means God has inspired the text and he used real people to write his message. Thus, what we are after when we read our Bibles is to understand the meaning of the inspired text, placed there by God and the human author.
To do that, scholar Robert Stein points out, we must seek to properly grasp “the pattern of meaning the [biblical] author willed to convey by the words (symbols) he used.” There are not endless options of what the text means, but a very specific meaning placed there by the inspired author. The idea that we can all interpret the Bible in different ways is a myth. The meaning of Scripture is encoded in words that limit its meaning.
The meaning does not reside in the reader. We cannot make the text mean whatever we want. The meaning is in the text! Your job is to find it.
Not only do Christians want to understand the biblical authors intended message in Scripture, but we wish to reorgainze our lives in response to what we learn. This process can easily break down anywhere along the Bible reading spectrum if we don’t first properly understand the text, and then if we fail to follow through on implementing the truth in our lives.
#1: The Eye of Interpretation
A couple thousand years separate you from the world of the New Testament authors, even more from the Old Testament. The good news is faithful Christians through the years have done a lot of work to make this living document, originally penned in Hebrew and Greek, as accessible as possible for contemporary readers. As you open your Bible, you are able to benefit from their translation work, and mine the pages of Scripture for the very wisdom of God.
When you open your Bible, you need to do the investigative work of a good journalist asking basic questions like who, what, where, when, and why? You will need to consider a number of factors in your text of study, like its style of writing and the theme of the work. How does your study passage fit into its broader context, the book, and the entire Bible? How does your passage point to Jesus, the focal point of all of redemptive history?
#2: The Eye of Implication
Closely connected to the interpretation of a text is a range of implications that fall within the author’s willed pattern of meaning, but are not specifically mentioned. For example, when Paul said that we should put away falsehood and speak the truth with our neighbors (Ephesians 4:25), he certainly did not have in mind anything like modern day social media. Though Paul explicitly speaks of how verbal communication (speaking) to and about our neighbor, a clear implication would be other forms of communication like typed symbols on a phone or computer.
An implication of a text should be closely tied to its proper interpretation. In general, a reader should not be dogmatic about an implication that isn’t clearly drawn from the author’s meaning. If your response to the text isn’t a clear implication—it might be a good personal point of implementation—but shouldn’t be confused with something that falls within the author’s willed pattern of meaning.
#3: The Eye of Implementation
Once we have considered the meaning of a passage, and its broader implications, then we should ask how our lives should look different as a result. The Spirit will lead us to the apply the truth of the Bible in different ways. We should all seek to be sensitive to how we might adjust our lives to the text, sometimes in small ways, other times in large ways.
A word of caution is in order. All of this hinges on good interpretation. If we misunderstand the text, we cannot draw careful implications or move towards implementation. The primary step is to understand what the Bible teaches.
Now, another warning is appropriate: Your implementation of the text can look different from someone else. A person might determine, for example, not to use social media at all in order to be faithful to Paul’s comments about wise speech. What that person cannot do, is then act as though their application or response to the passage is the real meaning of the passage.
Don’t Confuse Implementation with Interpretation or Implication
The real meaning of the passage is what we mean when we talk about interpreting the text. The implications are what seem to be in keeping with the text. The way we respond to the text is our implementation, which may be very different from one person to the next. We should never confuse our implementation with interpretation.
This has been a source of great harm for many Christians and churches. Some feel like it is noble to go beyond the text and demand others do the same. While we can be as decisive as we wish with implementing a text in our own lives, we should not seek to bind the consciences of other Christians with our application. Each person must ask the Spirt to lead them in applying the meaning and implications of any passage.
The next time you open your Bible for study, think about these three eyes. Look through the eye of interpretation to get at what is going on in the text and what it means. Look through the eye of implication to see what topics are clearly related but not stated in the text. And then look through the eye of implementation to see how you might best be faithful to God and what he has revealed in his word.