9 Tips for Interpreting Scripture

Many of us grew up hearing preachers proclaim, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” By now, I hope we realize that the task of biblical interpretation is a tad more complicated. If you do a little research, you’ll find a plethora of advice on how to interpret the Bible. What follows is a summary of my own approach. I offer it in hopes of jumpstarting your thinking as you seek to construct your own methodology.

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1. Read the text, preferably in several translations. Why read more than one translation? Doing so exposes us to the variety of ways in which different teams of translators have translated Hebrew and Greek terms, clauses, and sentences. While modern translations share much in common, the occasional differences in translation often reveal interpretative options you may want to pursue. My two favorite modern translations are the New American Standard Bible and the New Revised Standard Version.

2. Jot down your initial reactions to the text. Don’t be afraid to note your gut-level response to a text. What insight does it offer about God, God’s people, the world, or you? How do you feel about the text? Does it push you to feel encouraged, discouraged, hopeful, happy, angry, or frightened? Why? Later you can test the validity of your first response to the text, but resist the urge to self-edit at this stage in your study. Sometimes our initial reaction to a text proves insightful and useful, both to us and to others.

3. Read two good commentaries in order to get other interpreters’ takes on the literary and historical context of the text. Most of us need help in order to start to imagine the culture in which a given biblical author lived and wrote. Fortunately, we live in an era when good, readable commentaries are readily available. Two of my favorite commentary sets are the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series, and The New Interpreter’s Bible series.

4. Ask and answer a question: What might the text have meant to those who first heard the words or to the one who wrote the words? Once you’ve done your homework with the text and the commentaries, engage your imagination. Try to get inside the hearts and minds of our ancient spiritual forebears. For example, for years I read Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek as a call to refuse to respond to violence with violence. Only in recent years did I learn that Roman soldiers habitually backhanded conquered people, slaves, and even animals. The action showed that the soldier did not recognize the humanity of the person being slapped. Jesus told his followers to expose the other cheek to the soldier, which would require the soldier to use an open hand to slap. The open-handed slap, while still an insult, was delivered by one human to another. In essence, Jesus called his followers to practice peaceful resistance in a way that would confront their oppressors with their humanity. This single piece of historically grounded information enriched my understanding of passive resistance.

5. Ask and answer a question: How do the words, deeds, and attitude of Jesus interact with the text? Christians start with Jesus and work back into the Old Testament and out into the remainder of the New Testament. All biblical texts are evaluated in light of Jesus. For example, when you read Old Testament texts that call upon God’s community to stone men, women, or even children for a variety of offenses, try reading John 8:1-11 at the same time, paying special attention to the statement of Jesus: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Doing so may make us or the people we serve uncomfortable, but it honors our commitment to Christ as Lord.

6. Try to write one to five sentences in which you articulate what you think is the meaning of the text. You may find the exercise difficult at first, but the more you practice reducing your thoughts on a biblical text to a short, summary paragraph, the easier it becomes. Consider the following example based on Matthew 15:34: Jesus can change the world (personal, church, local community, etc.) when we put all we actually have in his hands. As it turns out, what we actually have is enough for what needs doing in a given moment. If you practice such a discipline on a regular basis, you gradually build quite a collection of personal commentary on the Bible. Read back through it occasionally. You will find that your collection becomes a valuable resource for your growth in Christ and your work with others.

7. Ask and answer a question: If I applied the text in accordance with what I’ve come to believe it means, what about my life would be affirmed or changed? Remember, it’s okay to be affirmed by a biblical text. Some of us look only for how Scripture might challenge our beliefs. We need to be open to the comfort and affirmation the Scriptures sometimes provide. That being said, don’t be afraid to allow a text to challenge even your core convictions and well-established habits of thought or deed. Deacons lead best when they submit to the affirming and convicting words of the Scriptures well interpreted.

8. Maintain an attitude of prayer and humility as you seek to interpret and apply the text. Pray as you read, study, reflect on, and apply a biblical text. Prayer opens us to the presence and work of Holy Spirit, who always stands ready to lead us toward wisdom. Work hard to cultivate humility. None of us grasps the full meaning and implications of the Scriptures. All our conclusions are tentative and subject to revision in light of additional knowledge and experience. As my wise, Presbyterian grandmother used to say, “You may be right, you may be wrong, or you may fall somewhere between truth and error. Live accordingly!”

9. Test your conclusions through conversation with other serious students of the text. Our working interpretations of Scripture are best tested in the context of a faith community. A deacon body ideally should be or become such a community, a safe and stimulating group of people with whom to explore the Scriptures. Who knows—if a deacon body functions as such a community, the church just might follow suit!

Exemplars_xsmThis post originally appeared in Session 4 of Exemplars: Deacons as Servant and Spiritual Leaders, edited by Elizabeth Allen and Daniel Vestal.

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