Last week and the week before, I wrote about the doctrine of Scripture. When we study the bible, it is important to remember the nature of Scripture, so the issue of its divine authority is important. Today, I want to begin to talk about the fact that the bible is a book, that it is literature.
The bible was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The words are inspired, but God used humans as the agents of his revelation. The bible is a book that is a compilation of other books. It has one overarching message, but within its pages there are other books each with their own independent themes and purposes. We cannot escape this, and while we know that the bible is a book unlike any other, we would be unwise to dismiss the fact that it is a book.
All books are written at a specific time, by a specific author, for a specific audience, with a specific purpose. The bible's books were all written at various times in history over a period beginning around 1400 BC to 95 AD. Each book was written at a particular time in history by an author, just like any other book would be. The books were written in three different languages, Hewbrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The cultures of the various periods of time were unique. The culture of Moses was a little different from the later prophets. The world of the New Testament was very different from the Old Testament world. Our world is vastly different from the world of the Old and New Testaments. Because of this difference, when we read the bible there are certain hurdles to overcome.
The first hurdle is the language, and I plan to talk about that when I do a post about bible translations, but for now, I will just remind us that the original manuscripts were written at a time very different from ours. How we read them even in translated form is crucial. The original authors each had a purpose for what they wrote. Isaiah had a purpose for writing, Paul had a purpose for writing, and John had a purpose. Our job is to figure out what they were saying to their original audience at the time of writing. We cannot simply look at a book of the bible and immediately ask, "How does this affect me today?" until we know what the author intended at the time. The truths and the principles of the Bible do not change, nor do their importance or power, but the world in which the books of the bible were written has changed, and it is our task to read them as the original readers would have (to the best of our ability) and then discern what that means for right now.
The two tasks that we embark upon when we read the bible are first, exegesis, and secondly, hermeneutics. Exegesis is the task where we sift through the text and answer the question "What is the original intent of these words?" The second task is hermeneutics, which is the interpretation of those words, or the contemporary relevance of those words; what does this mean for us today? We all read in a hermeneutic fashion even if we are not conscious of it. We all read in an interpretive way, trying to understand the author's intent. With the bible, it is important to resist the temptation to interpret until we've adequately done the exegesis. Because the bible is a book that has been written as it has, over a long span of time and in different cultural times and in other languages, the exegetical part of the work is crucial. We cannot interpret something out of a passage that was never there. Sometimes, we have a tendency to read the Bible as if it was written in our own times, and we assume things about it that are not there. That is a mistake. If I sit down to read the account of Joseph in the book of Genesis, and I say, "Okay, God, tell me how this book applies to me today as woman in 21st Century North America," I am going to miss out, because while the book does speak to me as a believer, its ultimate purpose was much greater than just speaking to me. The theme of the book, which shows the calling out of a people for God does have consequences for me living in the here and now, but before I can discern those principles, I need to understand the consequences for the people who originally heard it. That takes patience and it takes time, and of course, it takes the power of the Holy Spirit.
In their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart say this:
A text cannot mean what it never meant. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken. This is the starting point.
It is a particular pet peeve of mine when in bible studies, the teaching tries to "apply" the text too soon. Those kinds of applications tend to be contrived, and often come across as moralism rather than the bigger picture. I think much more exegetical work needs to be done before we can even attempt to see the specific applications.
This is a short post today, because the other thing I'd like to talk about is the various literary genres in Scripture and why it is important to recognize them and take them into account as we read. If I began that today, it would be a much longer post, and I am sensitive to the risk of boring my audience.