Last week we looked at the first of the three steps in the process of inductive bible study, Observation. Believe it or not, this is where bible study goes wrong most often! You might think that the second step – Interpretation – is where most mistakes are made. But in fact, observation is most often goofed up because we bring assumptions with us that are simply not in the text itself! Let me offer a real-life example of how we tend to bring our own “stuff” and actually insert it as if it was a part of the text:
One of the secret benefits of my form of high-functioning autism showed up unexpectedly when I took the fire inspector’s exam during my first career. Shown a picture of a house, I was asked to describe it. “What color is the roof?” I was asked.
“This side is green,” I replied.
“Why didn’t you just say, ‘Green?'”
“I don’t see the other side. I can only report what I see.”
Fire inspectors actually have to be taught not to fill in the missing pieces with their own assumptions. Oh sure, the other side probably was green, but I don’t know that from the picture. This matters particularly to combat fire officers when sizing up a situation on arrival at a fire scene, too, because lives depend on accurate observations. It’s the same way with bible study. There are eternal consequences!
Now this week, we’re looking at the second step, Interpretation.
The goal of Interpretation is to discover the author’s original meaning as he wrote the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is not a touchy-feely assessment of “what it means to me.” Remember we are exegeting the scriptures now, not reading devotionally or “to get a word from God that will get us through the day.”
Interpretation: What does it mean?
Interpretation is the discovery of the author’s original meaning as he wrote the Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The questions of interpretation involve further research into the facts (who, what, when, where) with the addition of why:
A.) The readers’ need (remember the audience) and
B.) The writer’s message (what).
The questions are answered by:
A.) Recording your answers to the who, what, when, and where that you observed.
B.) Studying the content “in and around:” In refers to the content
of the text, and around refers to the context of the book.
Keep a journal, and record your answers to the factual questions and in a separate column, and record the “why” based on three things:
1. The content of the passage – what does it say?
2. The context of the passage – why? Based upon the facts you gathered in step one (your observations).
3. Comparison with other scriptures with the same theme or describing the same events, people, or ideas. Reading the story of a prophet in the narrative and historical accounts will shed a lot of light on that prophet’s writings. Reading his own words in his own book sheds a lot of light upon the narrative accounts of his life and ministry. Reading Acts provides insight into the epistles, and reading the epistles brings new clarity to the accounts of the Apostles’ ministries in the gospels and Acts.
Sometimes different authors tell the same story in different ways (the “synoptic” gospels, for example – Matthew, Mark, and Luke). For example, the accounts of the synoptic writers each describe the baptism of Jesus differently: In Matthew, it reads as if only John saw the dove descending and heard the voice from heaven. Mark’s account seems to say that only Jesus saw the dove and heard the voice, and Luke seems to imply that the dove and voice from heaven were visible and audible to everyone present. In John’s account, only John saw the dove.
These differences are not “contradictions” in the bible which bring it’s authority, infallibility, or perspicuity into question. They are different accounts from different eyewitnesses to the events they describe. They probably weren’t trained observers, fire inspectors, nor gifted with high-functioning autism. They simply reported their accounts of the events they witnessed. Having multiple accounts to compare is a good thing, not a bad thing!
The extraordinary similarities of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the order of the narrative, the sayings of Jesus, etc. have given rise to a theory of authorship which may be helpful: The theory states that some written collection of “the sayings of Jesus” probably existed, and that the three synoptic writers all drew from this same source (known to scholars as “Q”) and added their own recollections or the accounts of eyewitnesses to their books. The Apostle John’s gospel is so different from the other three that he likely did not draw upon this other source (“Q”) when writing his account of Jesus’ life.
Okay, so it’s an interesting theory. But this kind of information is very helpful and can be found in the better resource tools such as commentaries, lexicons, and dictionaries. Here’s another example:
In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul refers to an earlier letter he wrote to the Corinthians, which is lost. The letter we call “First” Corinthians is actually his second letter to the church. The first letter, which has never been found but is referred to in 1 Cor 5:9, is termed “Corinthians A” by scholars. They came up with this theory to explain 1 Corinthians 5:9 instead of arrogantly presuming that 1st Corinthians has an error in it and therefore should be thrown out. Again, this information and lots more valuable historical and textual criticism is found in the other reference books. It is extremely valuable in helping to answer the questions of fact and discovering the why.
After consulting them and weighing the text and context and the comparisons with other scripture, then
Draw a conclusion. Finding all the elements in a passage or book is not easy! But keep in mind that you will be drawing conclusions based upon everything you have studied before and the results will be rich to say the least! Using the tools of text, context, and comparison you can avoid misinterpretations like this one:
In the next thrill-packed episode of Theology Thursday, we’ll look at the third and final step of exegesis, Application. Stay tuned!