Seven Things to Keep in Mind When Studying the Bible
1. All scripture is inspired and profitable but not all scripture is applicable in the same way.
The bad advice from Job’s friends isn’t applicable in the same way as Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Judas’ example of committing suicide isn’t a model for our behavior in the same way as Paul’s ethical instruction. Solomon’s cynicism in Ecclesiastes isn’t meant to be a guide for life in the same way as his wisdom in Proverbs. We violate the text when we don’t recognize that equality of inspiration and accuracy does not equate to equality of application. Error is not truth simply because God inspires its accurate recording.
2. A biblical answer to a specific question on a subject isn’t necessarily an answer to every question on a subject.
Jesus’ answer to the religious leaders about divorce and remarriage was his answer to a very specific question. To make this his answer to every question about divorce and remarriage is to violate the text. That Paul concedes to the reality of slavery and gives instructions to masters and slaves within that context does not equate to an endorsement of slavery. His answer to the hypothetical question “Given the cultural reality of slavery, how should we live?” cannot be forced to be the answer to “Do you think slavery is God’s best for humanity?”
3. Not all biblical language is literal.
Many misunderstand the literal/figurative choice to equate to a choice between real and false. To honor scriptural authority then means that we should take scripture literally. But this is not how language works. Words, whether literal or figurative, have a referent–some understanding they are meant to convey. This referent might either be concrete or abstract. Literal language might have a very abstract referent. Figurative language could have a very concrete referent. Language in scripture about the four corners of the earth (figurative language) actually has a very concrete referent (every conceivable direction). Metaphorical and literal language with both concrete or abstract referents can all be true. It is not necessary to assume biblical language is literal to affirm that it is true.
4. Historical and cultural context matters.
There’s no such thing as simply taking the text at face value. We will either understand biblical language within the context in which it was written or we will interpret it within our own cultural context. When reading what Paul had to say about women to the Ephesian church in his letter to Timothy, it’s helpful to understand something about Artemis’ temple and the associated worship practices in that culture. When reading Romans it’s helpful to understand the Jew/Gentile issues being faced by the church in Rome, otherwise we might assume Romans is about the theological issues surrounding individual justification.
5. Theology develops within scripture.
There’s no real understanding of angelic hierarchy until Daniel. We don’t really even find the first hints of a theology of resurrection until the Psalms. The biblical understanding of the afterlife present in the New Testament completely supersedes the early Old Testament concept of Sheol. Jesus’ own “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” approach to teaching further evidences this reality. Jesus himself is the ultimate revelation of God. This is nonsensical if previous revelations were just as ultimate.
6. “How does this apply to me today?” isn’t the primary question.
It’s an important question and you should always try to get to it. But the primary questions are: What might the author’s original intent have been? What would the immediate audience have understood this text to mean and how might they have applied it? This approach might totally change how you would apply the text to your own life. Take Jesus’ action in clearing the temple for example. If you immediately look for personal application you might assume that you shouldn’t have a bookstore or a cafe in your church building. But when you understand that Jesus was making a prophetic declaration against corruption and nationalism, personal application points toward being a voice for integrity and embracing God’s heart for the nations.
7. Don’t overuse Hebrew and Greek word studies.
When you look up an English word in Webster’s Dictionary, it will often give you several possible meanings. You must then use the context to determine which of those possible meanings are intended in a particular context. It would be silly to assume that every possible meaning is intended. I see this mistake made with Hebrew and Greek all the time. Someone uses some original language resource to look up the meaning of a word and several possible uses of the word are presented. All of these possible uses are then forced into the context and the word is forced to mean all of these possible meanings simultaneously. Language doesn’t work like that. Do word studies. It’s helpful. But don’t overdo it. Use several different translations of the Bible comparatively. If the nugget you learn from word study enhances or expands on the translation choices of the teams of scholars that translated that word, that’s great. But if it brings in a meaning that is completely absent from a variety of translations, be careful.