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ss nucleus - autumn 2006,  How to read the Bible for all its worth

How to read the Bible for all its worth

Hugh Ip looks at getting the most from Scripture

Introduction: the need to interpret

Most of us believe that the Bible can be understood by everyone, even medical students! This Nucleus series, based on the book How to Read the Bible for all its Worth,[1] aims to inform your reading of the Bible. The book has helped me to understand God's Word better and to apply it to my life today. In this introductory article we will consider how we should read the Bible and why it matters.

Good interpretation aims to understand the plain meaning of the text. Uniqueness is not the aim, although the explanation of a passage may sound new to somebody who has not studied it before. If we seek the plain meaning of biblical text, then why do we need to interpret? Can we not just read it? This is partly true but also naïve because of the nature of the reader and the nature of Scripture.

The reader as an interpreter

We unknowingly interpret as we read, because our reading is coloured by our experiences, culture, and understanding of ideas and words. An example is Paul saying, 'Make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts'.[2] In modern English, 'flesh' is taken to mean 'body'. So we think the verse refers to 'bodily appetites'. But Paul usually uses 'flesh' to refer to 'the sinful nature'.

Those of us reading the Bible in English cannot avoid the implications of interpretation. The Bible translation you read is the result of choices made by scholars between the meanings of words. Some translations (KJV, NRSV, ESV) leave it to the interpreter to explain that 'flesh' does not mean 'body' because Paul used that exact word. Others (NIV, GNB, NLT) help the reader and translate 'sinful nature'. Another (NJB) translates 'disordered natural inclinations' to explain what Paul actually means. These choices affect our understanding. Different translations can either help us or lead us astray.

Churches have different views on what passages of Scripture mean. Some believe the Bible teaches believers' baptism by immersion while others make a case for infant baptism. 'Eternal security' and the possibility of 'losing your salvation' are preached in different churches.

The need to interpret is even more apparent when we consider the heresies or unorthodox practices of cults that claim to be backed by the Bible. The baptising of the dead by the Mormons on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:29 and the denial of Christ's deity by Jehovah's Witnesses are two examples.

The nature of Scripture

The church historically believes the Bible to be both human and divine. It is considered 'the Word of God given in human words in history'.[3] The Bible has eternal relevance because it is God's word. It is not limited by culture or time. We must listen and obey. The Bible also has historical particularity because God spoke through 'human words in history'; it was originally written in a certain language, time and culture. Interpretation addresses the 'tension' between eternal relevance and historical particularity.

Interpretation is a two part process. We need to hear the Word as people back in that time and place heard God speak. This is called exegesis. After that, we need to hear that same Word in the here and now (hermeneutics).

The first task: exegesis

Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning.

It is the first step in reading every text. Without it, the Bible can be made to mean something God did not intend it to.

The experts know the biblical languages, the cultural backgrounds and how to determine the original text from the different manuscripts available. But we can learn to do good exegesis even without these. We need to use our skills and the tools created by experts. Three tools are essential: a good translation, a good Bible dictionary, and good commentaries.

Historical context

The time and culture of the author and readers of each book of the Bible are different. Geographical and political factors can be important. There may be an occasion for the writing of the book.

It helps our understanding of the Gospels to know the messianic expectations of Israel when Jesus appeared. The fact that Haggai prophesied after the exile is important. A Bible dictionary can answer many of these questions. For example, a denarius was offered to the workers in Matthew 20:1-16, yet this equivalent of a whole day's wage is translated as a penny in the KJV.

The historical context includes the occasion and purpose of each book. The information can often be found within the book itself. You can then confirm your findings with a Bible dictionary or the introduction to a good commentary.

Literary context

The idea of literary context is that words must be understood in their sentences, and sentences in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences. There are special rules for each genre. The units of thought in the poetry of the psalms are lines, while prose is made up of paragraphs.

There are different poetical patterns in the psalms. The repetition of words and sounds is commonly used. The importance of literary context is illustrated by Psalm 119. It is written as an acrostic where each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet begins a set of eight verses.

In reading, the question we need to ask is, 'What's the point?' The aim of exegesis is to discover the original meaning of the author. Why does the author say that here? What does he say next?


People often ask, 'What does this mean in the Bible?' One example is 2 Corinthians 5:16, where Paul writes, 'Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer' (NASB). What Paul means is that we know Christ no longer 'from a worldly point of view' (NIV), as opposed to not knowing Christ any longer 'in his earthly life'. Consulting a good commentary will be very helpful in answering these questions of meaning.

The second task: hermeneutics

Hermeneutics refers to the modern day relevance of ancient texts. How do we put into practice today what we learn from the Bible?

Solid exegesis must precede hermeneutics because the original intent of the biblical text is the only proper control for hermeneutics. Otherwise readers can take a text to mean whatever they want. The Mormons' baptising of the dead and the Jehovah's Witnesses' rejection of the deity of Christ are due to improper interpretation. In these cases, hermeneutics have not been controlled by solid exegesis.

Closer to home, one current trend amongst some Christians is the prosperity (health and wealth) gospel. An advocate of this 'gospel' may turn the plain meaning of the story of the rich young man (Mk 10:17-29) around to mean the complete opposite, then attribute this 'interpretation' to the Holy Spirit.

We cannot claim guidance from the Holy Spirit when we make the Bible mean anything that pleases us. The Holy Spirit cannot contradict himself and the Spirit inspired the original intent. We will receive the help of the Spirit as we discover the original intent and apply that to our own situation.

Hermeneutics is hard work! There are bound to be disagreements but Christians must talk to one another about these (see Peter Saunders' recent article, 'When Christians Disagree' in Nucleus).[4] There must be agreement about this, though: a text cannot mean what it never meant. Understanding the Bible is about working out what God intended the text to mean when it was first spoken.

We hope this taster has helped you see how important and exciting it is to read the Bible for all its worth! Have you considered how best to read biblical genres such as the Epistles, the Gospels, and the Laws? Look out for articles in this series giving useful hermeneutical guidelines for the different genres in upcoming issues of Nucleus.

Abbreviations of translations

ESV: The English Standard Version
GNB: The Good News Bible
KJV: The King James Version
NASB: The New American Standard Bible
NIV: The New International Version
NJB: The New Jerusalem Bible
NKJV: The New King James Version
NLT: The New Living Translation
NRSV: The New Revised Standard Version

  1. Fee GD, Stuart D. How to Read the Bible for all its Worth (3rd ed). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003
  2. Rom 13:14 NKJV
  3. Fee GD, Stuart D. Op cit:21
  4. Saunders P. When Christians Disagree. Nucleus 2004; January:16-25
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