Introducing three simple principles that will help you unpack the meaning of Bible.
We all want to do it–make sense of the Bible that is. Yet, most advice we get runs along the lines of “ask God to help you.”
That’s good advice, but there’s more to it than that.
Far too much of what we read in the Bible is odd, hard or abstract. We read about the Light, the Son of Man, the Kingdom of God–all useful concepts. But what do they mean?
As a result, it’s hard to wrap your mind around what the Bible’s actually trying to say to you.
I’d like to change that. I’d like to introduce you to three simple principles that will help you unpack the Bible.
These three principles arise because of the curious secret that the Bible is a plain, historical, consistent communication of God to men.
Behind the sixty-six books written by multiple authors over thousands of years is an organic unity unique to Christianity.
And because of this unity we can approach Scripture with these three principles and make sense of what once seemed so strange and obscure.
Principle 1: Look for the Simple, Native Sense
First, we must unpack the native–or natural–sense of what we are reading. This is called the principle of simplicity.
Here’s how it works.
Every word in the Bible is to be taken in its plain, ordinary meaning. We want the natural and obvious meaning to the people speaking and hearing those words.
That means what is simple and straightforward is always to be preferred to subtleties and complexities. It’s like the Occam’s Razor of Bible interpretation.
But this is not the same as looking for the literal meaning. Sometimes the natural is figurative rather than literal. Take Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ claim that a man must be born again:
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
It’s obvious Jesus was using a figure of speech here. But Nicodemus took it literal. The same goes for Jesus’ favorite form of instruction, the parable.
When reading a parable, it’s not legitimate to press the details. The point behind a parable is to illustrate one main lesson. A good example of a parable is the Good Samaritan found in Luke.
In this parable, don’t make the inn stand for the church and the two denarii stand for the two sacraments. If you do, then you’re guilty of making the text mean something the speaker never intended it to mean.
However, with an allegory you can draw many points from the the similarities. The vine and branches in John 15 are a good example of an allegory. In allegories, the details always deserve deeper study.
So, how do you figure out if a passage is to be taken literally or figuratively? Simple: use your common sense. Ask yourself what the native intention of the author or speaker was. What the simple purpose of that passage was.
If you do that, you’ll uncover the meaning behind every passage.
Principle 2: Look for the the Original, Historical Sense
The unique thing about Christianity is that God chose to reveal himself in a precise historical context. That means as we read Scripture, we need to ask ourselves what is the historical context.
We also need to keep asking ourselves: What did the author intend to convey by this? What is he actually asserting? What will his original hearers have understood him to have meant?
In other words, biblical writers should be allowed to speak for themselves.
So, as you read, you need to determine the situation, style, language and culture in which the writer wrote.
Situation. Who wrote it and to whom? What were the circumstances? For what reason?
Style. What is the literary genre of each book? Historical? Epistle? Gospel? Poetry? Wisdom literature?
Language. What is the original language of the book? What do the words mean in that language? How can my own language change the meaning of what I’m reading?
Culture. What social customs changed or stayed the same? More importantly, what is the point behind emphasis on certain social customs? In the case of Paul and veiled women in church, the point was marriage headship and the authority of the husband.
Principle 3: Look for the General, Harmonious Sense
Even though the Bible is a library of books written by dozens of authors, it is in fact the word of God expressing the mind of God. Thus, it possess an organic unity.
And if there is an organic unity, then all Scripture should jive with other Scripture. This is the principle of harmony.
The principle of harmony simply says to view Scripture as a whole. To let Scripture interpret Scripture. Here are two tips to help you do that:
1. Understand each passage in its immediate context–the paragraph, chapter and book in which it is embedded.
2. Understand each passage in its distant context–the total biblical revelation.
The immediate context gives each verse it’s specific meaning. It answers the question: How does this verse dovetail into the book’s particular message?
The distant context gives each verse its general meaning. It answers the question: How does the verse dovetail into God’s full, historical plan of salvation?
One thing to note before I finish: never read a Bible verse.
If you want to know what a particular verse means, at least read the paragraph before and after it. Better if you read the entire chapter. Best if you read the whole book.
To wrench a text from its context is an inexcusable blunder. You can avoid this mistake if you learn to see the Bible as a whole. And to read each text in the light of all.