School of The Rock


Thoughts about “Decoding" the Bible

Written by Paul D. Race for School of The Rock.

This page is an outline for a short course I once taught about different ways people interpret the Bible. So it doesn’t go into much detail, except to point out that folks who claim you need some kind of magic decoder ring or something to get a single “right” answer to every question you could possibly have about the Bible are trying to sell you something (even if their tracts are “free”). 

We’re posting this here because you might find it useful as a discussion guide. In fact, we’ve posted some potential discussion questions in italics.  If you don’t want to answer the questions out loud in a group, of course, you don’t have to.  But you should probably at least think about the answers for yourself.

Sadly, most Christians in most parts of the world have only known what their spiritual leaders tell them the Bible means. That made the spiritual leaders' job easy, and often lucrative, but the majority of believers has often starved for spiritual food. It is no wonder that wherever there has been an outbreak of Bible reading and study among a population, reform and/or revival have followed. Historically, each of the great reformers appreciated the value of critical thinking and careful Bible study, even if the next generation often went back to the "we'll tell you what God thinks you need to know" pattern.

Unfortunately, many evangelical Christians today are still "coasting" on either their parent's faith, or on the training and sermons of their spiritual leaders. Why is this dangerous to the believer? To the Church?

How Do We Determine Meanings?

The following are short working definitions only, for the sake of discussion:

  • Hermaneutics: Determining the meaning of anything that can be analyzed, including art, literature, and cultural trends. The 20th century saw a rise of "the hermaneutics of suspicion," which includes the tendency to see less value or universally-applicable meaning than the object being observed would seem to merit on the surface. What institutions or belief systems have suffered the brunt of this tendency to distrust and devalue? Is the determination to see less value or universally-applicable meaning in an object than it seems to merit any more objective or scientific than the tendency to see value and meaning? Which tendency does the spirit of this age tend to reward?
  • Biblical Hermaneutics: Determining the meaning of scripture within a Christian context, although in liberal theologies, a hermaneutic of suspicion has "chipped" away at the value and universally-applicable meanings that orthodox Christians attribute to scripture. Can a world-view that rejects universally-applicable meaning truly be called Christian in any meaningful sense?
  • Exegesis: In theologically conservative Christian contexts, determining the universal, divinely-inspired meaning and application of scripture. In liberal contexts, exegesis may mean only figuring out what "meaning" each individual can subjectively get out of a passage today, which may be different from the "meaning" he or she gets out of it next week. Which approach to scripture do you think is more likely to get you through hard times. Why? Which approach do you think is more likely to build a stable "body of Christ"? Why?

Assumptions Christians May Make When Interpreting Scripture

We all make assumptions when we attempt to interpret scripture.  Frankly, we should be aware of those assumptions and why they might lead us to finding different interpretations than other people.  The following list includes some common assumptions of theologically conservative Christians.  How does this list of assumptions align with your own?

  • Scripture has been intentionally imbued with meaning by a personal God.
  • We must not only understand the meaning, but live accordingly.
  • Because the Bible includes many different genres, knowing how to interpret those genres helps with the understanding of scripture - however Christians expect to see an underlying unity of meaning that transcends the genres.
  • Fundamental Christians approach scripture with the assumption that the fundamental truths of Christianity (as expressed, say, in the Apostle's Creed), are objectively true; consequently they are suspicious of interpretations that do not support what they feel are the foundations of the faith.
  • Many theologically conservative Christians approach the Bible with the conviction that every historical statement is literally true (with the understanding that poetic and prophetic passages include metaphors and other figurative language that may not be literally true but still communicates important spiritual truth)
  • What assumptions do you make that aren't listed here?
  • Which of these assumptions do you not share?

People who’ve grown up in sects and cults often approach the Bible with a large (often unbiblical) set of "fundamental truths," that they have to work hard to make the Bible "support."  Are you aware of any of your personal assumptions that might be coloring your interpretation of the Bible?  For example, if someone preaches from a passage and they don’t preach exactly the same sermon you’re used to hearing from that passage, do you get uncomfortable?

What the Bible is Not

  • A secret code book or "decoder ring" that only splinter sects or the Knights Templar know how to decode properly.
  • A book of magic formulas that guarantee you health and prosperity if you say the right words out loud long enough.
  • A spiritual "cafeteria line," where you can pick and choose which parts seem good to you.

What the Bible Is:

Personally, I think it is (and claims to be) God's message to us, for how to live in this world and how to prepare for the next.

Do you see why the way we look at Scripture is critical, not only for our own spiritual welfare, but for the future of the Church?

Some Ways to Look at Scripture

Here are some ways Christian scholars study scripture. 

General Approaches or Principles that Fundamental and Evangelical churches may use when studying scripture:

Some of these approaches are mutually exclusive, but, again, it’s worth knowing some of the different ways people look at the study of scripture. 

  • Context - meaning is made more certain when similar passages are compared
  • Dispensational/Covenantal - God has worked with different generations and cultures in different ways -
    • A hyperdispensationist would insist that God's promises to previous generations and cultures to not apply to later generations and cultures - I.e., God's promises to Noah or Abraham do not apply to the 20th-century church.
    • Other approaches believe that later dispensations or covenants are inclusive of God's promises to earlier dispensations and covenants.
  • Double Reference - prophetic writings often have two fulfillments - one that occurs locally or regionally within a few generations of the prophecy, and one that is (or is to be) fulfilled on a global scale by Messiah
  • Typical - Certain people and events in the Old Testament are physical models of spiritual truths that are revealed in the New Testament. As an example: Melchizedek as a forerunner of Christ's priesthood.

Systematic Bible Hermaneutics

One step-by-step approach to working out the meaning of scriptural passages, as taught by Henry A Virkler, in Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (1981):

  • Lexical-syntactical analysis: studying the grammar, syntax, and individual words, including verb tense, to arrive at the most precise literal and connotative meaning of the verse
  • Historical/cultural analysis: understanding the historical and cultural contexts in which the authors wrote and which they wrote about
  • Contextual analysis: comparing verses to nearby verses and to similar passages elsewhere in scripture
  • Theological analysis: comparing what one verse seems to say about a theological truth with other verses addressing the same or related content.
  • Special literary analysis: recognizing how the literary genre of a passage affects its interpretation

For a class exercise, you could take a passage of scripture and show the different kinds of Biblical content you could reveal by digging into the scripture in all of these different ways.

Hopefully this gives you some ideas and encouragement for your own future Bible study.

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you have a blessed day and figure out how to be a blessing to those around you as well.

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