How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

Yes, I know. There are tons of books out there dealing with the subject of how to study the Bible. And you may have read some of them and may feel that you don’t want to be bothered with yet another book on this subject. But before you lose interest and stop reading right here, let me tell you why this book — How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Stewart and Fee — not only is absolutely worth reading, but ranks among the “must-read books” for every committed and devoted lay Bible student or teacher.

We all know the importance of interpreting the Bible correctly. Our understanding of Scripture deeply influences our Christian lives, our families, our ministries, etc. To give you an example, I heard of a church in Germany where in which women are still required to cover their heads with scarves before coming to church, because Paul talks about a sign of authority on their heads (1 Co 11:10). In a similar vein, Paul forbade women to preach (1Tim 2:11-15). Some churches obey this command literally, forbidding women to preach or to teach men. We in UBF do not literally follow such verses; women are allowed to publicly speak in our congregations and teach and preach from time to time. This implies that we have understood these passages in a different way. If we adhere to a certain interpretation, we should have good and sound reasons why we understood a passage in one way and not another.

The basic hypothesis of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is that every reader is inevitably an interpreter of the Bible. We desire to try to unravel the mysteries of the Bible. We approach the Bible with a cultural mindset and a specific translation (which in itself represents an ‘interpretation’ of the original manuscripts). Knowingly or unknowingly, whenever we open our Bibles, we are already in the process of interpreting Scripture. We should, therefore, establish a set of basic ground rules for Scriptural interpretation.

And believe it or not, it can be as simple as this: Try to understand the Word of God as the original biblical authors meant it when they wrote it. This means that we can dismiss every scriptural interpretation that is foreign to the intentions of the original writers in an obvious way. Doesn’t this approach make a lot of sense? Isn’t it just common sense?

Stewart and Fee propose two steps in studying the Bible: First comes exegesis, and then comes hermeneutics. The authors define exegesis as trying to understand what the word of God meant to the original hearers Hermeneutics is defined as translating these findings into the Here and Now. The crucial point is that exegesis comes first. Only after understanding what the Word meant back then can we understand what the Word wants to tell us today. One of the very frequent mistakes that Christians commit in our days is that they either do no exegesis at all, or they do exegesis very poorly. Either way, they jump too quickly to application of the word, and soon begin proclaiming something that God had never intended to say.

Stewart and Fee apply this two-step approach to the entire Bible. In a very intelligent manner, they subdivide the Bible into literary genres. (Timothy Ha referred to a beautiful picture to illustrate this). The genres include narrative history, poetry, wisdom literature, letters, prophetic books, and so on. Sound exegesis must begin with a genuine appreciation of the literary format in which God chose to convey his message. There are many cases where we apply this correctly, even subconsciously. For example, when Job speaks about the arrows of the Almighty in him, we intuitively understand this to be a powerful literary device to express his horrendous pain and suffering. So we understand that the arrows in Job never intended to indicate that actual arrows entered Job’s body.

In contrast, when we read the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we understand that Luke is telling his audience that he is giving us a historical account of Jesus, which is meant to be taken literally.

These examples (Job and Luke) are somewhat obvious. But there are many passages where the genre is less obvious.

 

Stewart and Fee lead their readers from one biblical literary genre to the next, providing scores of helpful tips and advices for each category of biblical literature. From a scholarly perspective they supply many valuable guidelines dealing with how to approach the different literary genres and how to do good exegesis and sound hermeneutics. They provide lists of Do’s and Don’ts. (I readily admit that I have, at one time or another, committed each and every one of the don’ts.) At the end of the book, they recommend specific commentaries which provide solid exegesis.

One final remark: A common objection I have heard to this method of approaching the Bible goes like this: “This approach is so intellectually based! Aren’t you neglecting the role of the Holy Spirit? By promoting this kind of approach, aren’t you missing out on the power of the word of God?”

In response, here is a short story. A minister once announced that he would stop preparing his messages and skip all the tireless thinking and studying. Instead, he determined that he would just listen to the Holy Spirit and only preach what the Holy Spirit gave him to preach every Sunday. And that’s what he did. When the minister entered the pulpit he attentively listened to what the Holy Spirit told him. The Holy Spirit said, “You have been lazy. You have been really, really lazy…”

16 comments

  1. Henoch, thanks for this article. Hooray for exegesis!

    By the way, I read good things about Gordon Fee’s new commentary on Revelation. He begins that commentary by asserting that most of what modern Christians believe about Revelation is hogwash:

    http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2010/11/13/gordon-fee-on-revelation/

    He says that to really understand Revelation, we need to know something about the genre of Jewsih apocalyptic literature. I’ll buy that.

    I will disagree with you on one point, though. Yes, we do need to understand the author’s original intent. That is the starting point of solid exegesis. But the writers of the New Testament, and even Jesus himself, routinely went beyond that principle. For example, Matthew’s gospel appropriates many passages from the Old Testament that are not obviously messianic and applies them to Jesus. I think that the Bible itself provides some understanding about how to handle Scripture. We need a solid understanding of the text, and we need the work of the Holy Spirit as well. The Holy Spirit is continually speaking to us through the text, drawing us to Jesus, and pointing out that all of our attention must be focused on him.

  2. Hi Joe, Henoch, thanks for lively discussion on the subject! “Text” and “Context” I agree with you. The Greek ablative preposition “ek” can be translated as “out of” the text. (Our English word “exit” come from “ek” in Greek.) So we have exegesis, meaning what comes out of the word. What is in the text? The emphasis is stay with the text. On the other hand, Greek accusative preposition of “eis” literally means “into” the word. When it comes to the question of how to study the Bible, our own idea we put “into” the text will influence the outcome. But once we deal with the text exhaustively, then, we will have plenty of things to say based on the text, free from pollution.

  3. I recently ran across a nice little article titled “The Ten Commandments of Scripture Interpretation”:

    http://www.outofur.com/archives/2010/11/10_commandments.html

    One of the commandments is: “You shall embrace both the form and content of Scripture as inspired by God.” I think this is the major point of Henoch’s article. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to exegete one of the Psalms by reducing it to a point-by-point explanation while ignoring the beauty of the poetic language.

  4. Henoch, thanks for the well-written review. I hope to read this book sometime and also be aware of my own tendency to insert my cultural biases when reading and interpreting Scripture.

    (btw I feel slightly envious at how comfortably and articulately you write in English, given that it’s not your first language.)

  5. Thanks PAL, for explaining the meaning of exegesis. It was very informative.

    Susan: you’re very kind but i think many could “comfortably and articulately” write in English if their articles would be proof-read and cleaned up by a native English-speaker. So thanks, Joe! =)

    Joe, i absolutely agree with you that the Holy Spirit is essential for our understanding of Scripture. And if He doesn’t bless our studies of God’s word then we may as well feel like the builders who labor in vain. I am well aware of the fact that Jesus and other NT writers went beyond the principles of exegesis, that is, exegesis as strongly recommended by Stewart & Fee. However, i think that i would be hesitant to say that we do have the same liberties to do so today.
    All the NT authors who cited and interpreted OT scripture were not only led by the Holy Spirit but their words and writings have actually become inspired Scripture themselves. Therefore, it is the Holy Spirit himself who is using his own words to reveal and say something completely novel and foreign to the human authors of the OT. Whereas the Spirit has every right to do so – because these are his very own words – i do not think that we have the same rights and the freedom to do the same. I believe that there is a distinction between the authors of inspired Scripture and us.
    For instance, i really love and admire Spurgeon and i believe that he was led by the Spirit, especially when he preached. But in the Songs of Solomon, he interpreted this book solely as an illustration of Christ’s love to the church. I think it is always awesome and appropriate to preach Christ, but i also think that God originally intended to tell us something else when he inspired Solomon to write with greater sense for poetry than Shakespeare. i believe that Scripture is ultimately about Christ. But i disagree with people who say that each and every verse of the bible must always and in every circumstance point to Jesus.
    That said, i would like to mention that i always want to be open for correction.

    • Love this nuts and bolts book by Fee and Stuart. As far as Spurgeon is concerned, I think he was a product of his time. If we follow what Fee and Stuart suggest, we would give the genre, context, and background on Solomon etc. After all that, we could jump into a gospel-centered hermeneutics about how a certain verse displays Christ’s love for the Church, and he sees the Church as all fair and beautiful because he sees her in himself–washed in his blood, and clothed in his meritorious righteousness.

      I wouldn’t say that every verse must point to Jesus in private exegesis, but I do say that every sermon must get to Jesus and the gospel.

  6. Hi Henoch,

    I agree that we don’t have to see every verse in the Bible as pointing to Jesus. But I do think that there are many parts of the Bible that point to him in ways that might go beyond what we explicitly find in the New Testament. For example, when we study Leviticus, I think it is legitimate to adopt symbolic Christian understandings of the elements of Israelite worship, even if those interpretations have not been explicitly made by NT writers. I think it’s appropriate to see Jesus behind each of the various types of sacrifices, and to see the Holy Spirit as symbolized by anointing oil. Without granting ourselves freedom to do so, it would be hard to relate the Old and New Testaments.

    I like what you said about Spurgeon’s interpretation of Song of Solomon. Basically, if I hear someone say, “This part of Scripture is only about XXX and not about YYY,” I become skeptical, because passages of Scripture do have multiple meanings that go beyond what any one person may say at a given time. And I become especially skeptical when XXX is a more symbolic interpretation than YYY. I think that attitude is what bothers some people about Walton’s recent book on the early chapters of Genesis. While he made lots of very interesting and useful points, it seemed to me that he was a bit too strident in saying, “These passages are not at all about YYY,” when many sincere Christians have thought that they were exactly about YYY. Being strident about things that are not central to the core of our faith isn’t a good idea, at least in my opinion.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating and complex subject. I’m glad that you are thinking about it.

  7. Joe, agreed. =)
    If i learned something from bible exegesis, it is the fact how difficult and how challenging it is. This ought to make me humble with regard to different interpretations of the bible even though it is necessary to discuss why a certain approach makes more sense than others. So i don’t want to be too strident with my interpretations.
    It’s very interesting that you are mentioning John Walton’s provoking book on Genesis 1. i hope that we can discuss Genesis 1 in near future. The challenges that are hidden in the “book of beginnings” are staggering.

    • Yes, the early chapters of Genesis are important and complex. There are lots of lively discussions going on about this at the Jesus Creed blog, almost every day. I learn a lot by just reading the various perspectives.

  8. Henoch, thank you for your review of this book. I bought the ‘book-by-book’ version in Fee’s series a few years ago. I find these books helpful as I have had a hard time with some of the (sometimes lack of) comments I otherwise find in study bibles.

    In paragraph 4 in your article, one of your points may be hinging on knowing who biblical authors were, to some extent. I find this hard, ie Deut34:10 probably was not written by Moses –or during Moses lifetime. One could then ask who wrote it, and what’s to say this doesnt happen in Genesis (events before Moses) etc. I try to approach the text not assuming much about the author(s). Can we do exegesis well without knowing much about the authors? Thanks again, peace

  9. Hi Rick, yes, we can do good Biblical exegesis without knowing who the author is, consider the book of Hebrews for instance, no one knows who its author was, but it was accepted as canonical by the early church. There is certainly a difference between anonymous writers and pseudonomous writers, as a matter of fact, most of the books of the Bible are anonymous (meaning that they don’t state the author’s name within the book explicitely, but the earliest Jews/Christians knew who wrote it ie. Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). But none of the books of the Biblical Canon are pseudonomous (meaning the author ascribed a name to the authorship book that wasnt the real name of the author, and or written during the time that the author lived ie. The Gospels of Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdala etc.)

  10. Oops, meant to spell that “pseudonymous” with a “y” sorry!

  11. Rick, thanks for your interest and your comment. i agree with David that we don’t have to know in each circumstance the author in order to do sound exegesis. Trying to understand what the original author tried to convey is a rule of thumb, which should be the first overarching question we seek to answer when studying a bible passage. You are absolutely right in pointing out that there are many bible passages like the one you mentioned where notes and comments are added by some kind of editor who are unknown to us. But to come back to Deuteronomy, in my knowledge most evangelical scholars believe that Moses was the primary author of the Pentateuch and that editorial changes are minor contributions.
    i was also wondering: does the assumption that Deuteronomy 34:10 has not been written by Moses make any difference in terms of our exegetical approach and interpretation of this verse ? I couldn’t think of a reason why.
    The main point of the article was to show that the biblical writers were choosing a particular literary genre to proclaim their message. Each of these genres comes with a set of rules that should be observed because the same sentence in a historical narrative could mean something completely else when embedded in Hebrew poetry, for instance. In this way, we ought to give more attention to the human authors and their audiences before asking the question how God’s word applies to us. I readily admit that this is something i had not been doing well, or better, not at all, before i came across this book…

  12. Gordon Fee’s other book, How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour, is also a great read along with one’s personal Bible studies.

  13. No doubt there’s much of interest and value in this book, Henoch. Thanks for your post. However I will bring up one simple counterexample that precludes us from completely following the suggested message. It is from daniel chapter 8. Here daniel records a vision. Very interestingly however the chapter closes with these words: “I was appalled by the vision it was beyond understanding.” Later in chapter 12 daniel repeats “I heard but I did not understand.” The heavenly messenger’s reply is interesting: “Go your way daniel because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end.” So here we have a clear case where the original writer did not understand what he wrote. This is not that unusual for a prophetic book. Paul also talked about mysteries – paul talks about this in colossians where he says “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations but is now disclosed to the saints.” So for at least some of the scripture I think we can conclude that God intentionally did not give the authors an understanding of what was written. Clearly this means that the Holy Spirit would have to reveal the meaning later. So the simple rule of apply it in the context of what it meant to the original author cannot always be followed.

  14. Thanks Bill, for your comment. I’m really learning alot here! I’m in total agreement with Ben W that this book is mainly aimed at lay-people like me.
    You are right in saying that there are parts of Scripture, (probably mainly prophetic in nature), where even the original authors did not fully understand and didn’t see its actual fulfillment. So i should have been a little bit more careful in my article by stating that trying to understand what the original authors meant is a rule of thumb rather than an absolute law. But again, OT prophecy is a literary genre and exegetical rules can be applied. And as previously pointed out, many bible passages do have several layers and some prophecies can be applied to the immediate future of the Israelites and also to the endtimes of human history.

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