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…”