Like any other book, the Bible requires some interpretation to understand it better. In fact, there is no other way to understand a book than interpreting what it says. So the issue is not whether we interpret the text or not but how we interpret it in order to understand it in a deeper and nuanced way. Because the Bible has such a long history, the church came up with various ways of interpreting the scripture. You may not need to know the details of the various schools of interpretation, but you would do better if you follow certain guidelines for balancing your interpretation.
Balanced interpretation of the Bible means you interpret it in such a way that your interpretation recognizes and acknowledges the multilayered nature of the Bible and the complexity of the ideas it presents. In practice, it means you don’t ignore passages that don’t fit into your perspective or the teaching of your favorite text. Obviously, balanced interpretation requires an in-depth study of the scripture. But even without that, you can apply certain tips to your Bible interpretation to lessen the impact arising from a lack of knowledge. Moreover, you need a balanced interpretation because there is so much noise out there, and so much politics has gotten involved in applying the Bible to everyday life. Even racists appeal to the sacred text to support their miserable self-delusion. Add onto it our own prejudices, misplaced passions, sinfulness, and you will see why striving for a balanced interpretation of the Bible is a must.
The church has long been aware of sweeping and unbalanced interpretations of the Bible. There is even a name for that process: eisegesis. Eisegesis is the process of interpreting the Bible in such a way that it says what we want it to say. Essentially, it means that you force the text to speak your opinion without regard to details, context, and reality. Now, we all do understand that in certain cases our opinion and biblical teaching may align, but that is not the case at all times. Besides, even when our opinion and biblical teaching align, we are running the risk of eisegesis because the text will always have some details that we missed in our all-too-eager desire to find support from the good book. When a pastor first writes a sermon and then finds some verses to paste into what he wrote, he is doing eisegesis (yes, there are pastors who do that). So we have to be careful in the way that we interpret the Bible.
The proper way of interpreting the Bible requires exegesis. Exegesis is the process of in-depth study of the biblical text. It means that you read the text, you pay attention to the details, and you read the text in its original language and explore words, sentence structure, grammar, cross-references, etc. Exegesis is a gateway to a balanced interpretation, but it does not guarantee a faithful, nuanced, and charitable interpretation of the Bible. Why? Because a faithful and charitable interpretation of the Bible is not just a matter of study and skill. It is also a matter of the heart. So, yes, we try to balance our interpretation with the help of some tips, but remember that above all, a balanced interpretation is a matter of the heart.
However, I have to recognize that you can increase your chance of finding a balanced interpretation of the Bible if you are willing to study certain subjects like hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of the process of interpreting. Obviously, we are talking about how to interpret the texts and not how to interpret, say, art installations. However, hermeneutics will teach you about the overall interpretation rather than just the text interpretation. Either way, by increasing your own awareness of a textual or biblical interpretation, you will gain a tremendous advantage. Your reading and understanding of the sacred text will be much more appealing, in-depth, and gracious.
So what tips can help us balance our interpretation of the scripture? Below you will find eight tips with short examples to guide your thinking. Here we go!
Find verses and passages that disagree with the one you are focusing on.
Because the Bible is a large book with a variety of perspectives, you will find that for almost any subject matter there is some internal tension in the Bible. That tension (some kind of disagreement or differing perspective) is good because life is full of tension, and humans are full of tension. Tension does not necessarily mean a contradiction, but it is not excluded either. In life the tension propels us to create, to desire, to appreciate. So it goes with the Bible.
When you study a biblical text, keep in mind that somewhere else in the Bible another perspective or text is waiting for you too. It is your job to listen to these diverging texts and wrestle with the word. That’s how you discover God’s will. For example, take Judah’s death and its description (Matt. 27:5 and Acts 1:18). Whether you believe there is a contradiction or not is secondary.
What is important is that Matt. 27:5 and Acts 1:18 make us pause and think about the death of Judah, two differing details of it, and how they go together. You may want to address that in your Bible study. It is better to recognize the tension, then wrestle with it rather than ignore one of the two texts that contributes to the tension. When you ignore one of the texts, you do a disservice to yourself and to your God.
Find alternative interpretations.
An alternative interpretation is the backbone of any biblical reading. Just glance around any given topic in biblical commentaries, and you will notice various interpretations. The very fact that Christians are divided about the biblical canon, emphasize different elements of their faith, and denounce one another in the name of a singularly correct and truthful reading of the Bible is a living testament to the power of alternative interpretations. So when you study a passage, don’t just stick to one interpretation of it before exploring various schools’ takes on that very text. The variety of interpretations will show you certain details that you may not want to recognize because of your theological leaning.
Take for example James 2:14–26, the famous faith vs. deed discussion. Protestants (full disclosure, I’m one!) emphasize that James here speaks about a dead faith, not the real one. Well, Catholics have an alternative interpretation, and their voice would give you another perspective. You could add scholarly explorations of the text to these interpretations before you make your own judgment. The point? Find and explore alternative interpretations of the texts you are learning or preaching. Even if you disagree with the alternative readings at the end, you will gain something as long as you are an open-minded biblical interpreter.
Look at the larger context and cotext of the text.
All texts have a context, and the biblical text is no exception. There are a variety of contexts. It can be a social context, a historical context, a literary context, or a textual context often referred as cotext. To keep things easy, I will focus on cotext because this is the most common context you will encounter. A textual context or cotext, as I use it, means that you look at the other texts around the studied text. These might be several passages or verses that come before and after the isolated and studied biblical text. By looking at the context of a text, you can determine common patterns. You can verify the emphasis.
An example would be reading Jeremiah 48 in the context of Jeremiah 46–50. In Jeremiah 48, the prophet warns Moab, one of the ancient nations. But in chapters 46–50, there are other nations or places or kings that the prophet also warns such as Egypt, Philistines, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Elam, and Babylon. In the larger textual context, you can discover specifics about Moab that you might have otherwise missed. You can also gain a new insight into the prophetic warning as the scale of Jeremiah’s address sheds light on how Moab is related to each of these nations.
Pay attention to the genre.
All biblical texts belong to a genre. In fact, this is one of the most striking features of the Bible. Poems, stories, letters, and gospels represent different genres, and you would do well if you take into account the specifics of how those genres can affect your interpretation. By taking into account the genres of individual biblical texts, you avoid confusing what’s intended to edify or stir up your heart with what’s intended to modify your behavior. Of course, they are connected, but their overlap should not be a reason to ignore subtle differences that may accumulate into big mistakes if dismissed. In the Bible, poems need to be treated like a poem, not some kind of factual, descriptive statement about the real relation between things. Paul’s letters need to be treated like letters that address some pressing concern with the social-local context of the believers who received it.
For example, Psalm 119:81, says, “My soul faints with longing for your salvation.” This verse is intended to dramatize and remind us of the longing for God because the human soul does not literally faint. Humans faint. Even so, how many humans you have seen really faint simply because they longed for… salvation? So your interpretation is fine if it takes some imaginative flight to stir up people’s hearts. The laws described in the Old Testament are different. “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12) is not meant just to stir up your heart but also to ground you in the way the Lord desires you to live. So yes, you can take some imaginative flights about it, but at the end of the day, you have to land in reality and study it to understand what it means for humans to honor their parents. In short, don’t ignore genre differences and their implications for interpreting the Bible.
Explore cross-references to understand deeper patterns.
In some Bibles you will find cross-references between texts. That’s because the Bible has various themes that overlap and a larger unifying pattern (like God-human relations) that ties all of these themes together. Don’t ignore cross-references as something just for pastors. Biblical cross-references will help you understand the development of a topic and the differences between the main characters involved in various texts. Cross-references may often be the first step to discovering how consistent or tension-filled a pattern is that you are exploring.
Also, realize that cross-reference is different from intertextuality. Cross-references are easier to explore than intertexuality of a text which requires you to have access to wide variety of texts outside of the text you explore and be able to observe their influences on your text. An example of intertextual research would be the exploring ancient apocalyptic literature in order to see how they affected the of Book of Revelation. Simply put, intertextuality means how texts echo one another. The Bible is packed with intertextuality but that is subject to another blog post.
One example of a cross-reference would be Jesus’ raising the dead girl (Mark 5:40–42). Mark’s description is a complete story, so you may be tempted to isolate it and focus on the text, but exploring its connection with the prophet Elijah’s raising the dead (1 King 17:17–24) would show you a larger pattern and its details. You may discover some surprises in a closer reading.
Study the analysis of the original language of the text.
This is an important step for any in-depth Bible study and balanced interpretation. If you don’t read Greek or Hebrew, you can read online resources to familiarize yourself with the analysis of the text’s original language. Ancient Greek (Koine) and Hebrew are different languages from English, and much of their subtlety is lost in translation. Being able to familiarize yourself with the original language of the text and the elements of it will affect its interpretation and increase your chance of interpreting the Bible in a balanced way.
Take for example the Greek words “logos” and “rhema.” Both of them are translated into English as “word.” But the word “logos” is richer in its connotations and is used in Greek philosophy. By studying this word’s history, its use in Greek philosophy, and its possible influence on John’s Gospel, you would gain a deeper understanding of John 1:1. Same thing goes for the Hebrew word “berit” (covenant). By studying the Hebrew word “berit” and comparing it to the Greek word “diatheke” (covenant) in the New Testament, you can discover some tension in the meaning lost in translation and gain a new perspective. It would enrich your interpretation like nothing else.
Connect the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The New Testament cannot be fully understood without the Old Testament, and the Old Testament cannot be fully appreciated without the New Testament. Many concepts, ideas, or events in the New Testament either refer to or have some kind of background in the Old Testament. Besides, the Old Testament presents distinctive perspectives on some matters that differ from the New Testament. But both of them are parts of the Bible, and a Christian cannot ignore either one of them. So no matter what topic you interpret, it is wise to explore the connections between the OT and the NT on that given topic.
Take for example the Great Commandment. There are some subtle differences between the Old Testament’s and the New Testament’s formulation of the Great Commandment. If you want to understand the commandment in depth, you would do better to check it out in both the OT and the NT and then explore the details.
Don’t overdo it, and leave room for God’s work in your heart.
Now we come to the point where we need to remind ourselves that we have to balance our interpretation of the Bible with an attitude of humility and respect. Remember that there is no way we can exhaust the Bible in our interpretations and avoid mistakes totally or completely. There is no way to master the book. In fact, the mentality that tries to master the revelation is heading in wrong direction. We can only glimpse its depths and learn humbly from it by acknowledging our mistakes along the way. So don’t overdo it when you interpret the Bible by coming up with the most sophisticated interpretations or doing intellectual acrobatics as if revelation is something hidden behind the words and passively sits there for you to access through your mastery of the text.
Also, remember that revelation is God’s mystery. The Bible is only a shadow of revelation. The revelation is Jesus Christ, the word of God. God’s revelation goes beyond the Bible, and it is much more than just the Bible. To assume that by finding the original meanings of the words (as if they sit in the texts) or by their grammatical analysis or by studying the text thoroughly we will somehow know the truth is only part of the truth. The other part is to know our limitations and to not confine the revelation to the Bible or treat it as a passive artifact. Our hearts and our attitudes matter to the Spirit’s work in us and in our interpretation. And unless the Spirit works in our hearts, reading and researching the Bible will always be just one thing: sophistry on the text without the light of the Spirit.
So explore, balance, and be passionate about the faith and the scripture without going overboard. It matters.
Now it’s your turn. Let me know how you balance your interpretation of the scripture. Also, please share the post on social media if you think it will help people deepen their understanding of the Bible.