Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Video on Missional Hermeneutics: Bible As Mission Document

Here is a video for Asbury Seminary's "Seven Minute Seminary" series for Seedbed. I usually use this sort of talk to introduce a missional approach to reading the Bible.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reading the Bible Well: Reflecting on a Text's Implications

Reflect on its Implications and Function within the Bible
Once we have answered key questions raised in our close reading we need to begin to draw out the broader truths and ideas that are explicit and implicit in the text. The goal here is to move from the specific details and facts in a passage to an understanding of how these details together to present a deeper message.

In light of your study, reflect on questions such as these: If this were the only passage of Scripture that I had, what would I know? What broad truths emerge from reflecting on this portion of Scripture? What does this passage teach about God? What does it teach about life in God’s creation? What does it teach me about humanity and the role of God’s people?

After reflecting on these questions, it is important to attempt to assess how the teaching of a given portion of Scripture relates to the whole. Are there other places in the Bible where similar teachings or ideas are found? Reflect on how our text nuances, affirms or critiques other biblical texts. The purpose of this step is to understand the contribution of our text to the biblical message.

Make Specific Applications
The goal of the reading the Bible as Christian Scripture is conversion. The power of Scripture to shape us depends on our willingness to push beyond merely engaging the Bible with our minds but also putting its words into practice in our world. Once we understand the message of our passage in light of the biblical message as a whole we are able to explore how it may impact our lives in the present.

Here are a few questions that you may find helpful to guide you in this process:

How does this passage understand God’s mission in the world and how do we fit into God’s purposes? What kind of people does this text imagine us to be if we were to live out its message? How would my life be different if I took the truths of this text seriously? How would my community of faith need to change in light of my study?

Try to be as specific to your own setting in life as possible in making applications.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suggestions for a Close Reading of a Biblical Text

Are you interested in learning to read the Bible more productively? Here are some brief suggestions to help you.

There are three core elements in learning to study a text closely: observe the text, ask questions, and seek answers.

First, observe the details in the text and record observations. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. Don’t assume that you know the meaning of any text. Ponder the words and phrases found in the text. Savor the images and language used to convey the text’s message. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. You may find it helpful to read a couple of different translations and record the differences as a means of reflecting on the text. Stay put within the confines of the passage you are studying. Resist the temptation to flip to another part of the Bible until after you have carefully engaged the text that you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Establish an outline or create a chart to organize its content. Above all, don’t give up. Persist in the process of collecting your own observations and insights. This process will prove generative in terms of the insights and new questions that will emerge.

Second, while making observations, be sure to write out questions that your observations lead you to ask. Engaged reading requires this. The best interpreters of the Scripture are those who ask the most penetrating questions. This process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at two levels: defining questions and questions about function. Defining questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” and attempt to probe beneath the surface to look for the deep meaning and implications. Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following defining questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance?

Third, answer key questions. In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Review your observations and questions. Select the handful of questions whose answers are essential for making sense of the text. Begin answering your questions by looking at the observations that you have already made. What evidence have you already found through your close reading to begin to develop possible answers? If you need additional help in answering your questions, you may find it helpful to read other commentaries, look up subjects in a bible dictionary, or use a concordance to study key words as they are used elsewhere in Scripture. 

Wrap up
Summarize your answers along with the key evidence that supports them. When summarizing, attempt to answer a question such as this: If this were the only part of Scripture that I had, what would I know? 

For more details on these elements see the longer blog post: Reading the Bible Missionally: A Short Guide for Interpreters

Here are two books that will help you learn to read Scripture wisely and well:


Friday, May 18, 2012

Skills for Reading Scripture: Context(s)

Skills for Reading Scripture

There is no substitute for learning to read the text carefully and closely. Each of us can gain competence in this practice. Reading the Bible may be compared to a trip to the ocean. Like the ocean, the Scriptures have various levels and depths of meaning. The reader must decide whether to be satisfied merely with observing the ocean from a chair on the beach, dipping one’s toes into the shallows, or heading out far from shore. If one only enjoys the ocean from one particular spot, much will be missed. It is vital for us as readers to venture as deeply as possible into the biblical passages we are studying and to learn to view them from a variety of perspectives in order to experience them in all of their richness. Just as the ocean runs from the shallows along the shore to the unfathomable depths of the Mariana Trench so the Scriptures offer us as much depth as we desire. How deeply do we want to explore the Scripture?

Reading in Context
The key to understanding any passage in the Bible is learning to read it in its literary context. Reading Scripture is a dance between the reader, the text, and its wider context. Like a dancer who must maintain awareness of both the music and her partner, the wise reader must keep in view both the discrete details of the passage of Scripture being studied and the wider movements of the passages surrounding it. In biblical interpretation, context is everything. By literary context, we mean several interlocking levels.

First, the primary source of evidence for understanding the meaning of a passage is its immediate context. In most cases this will be the text that we are studying and the paragraphs immediate before and after it. For example, if we are studying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13) it is important to observe that it occurs within a block of teaching that focuses on prayer (6:6-15). The verses immediately before the Lord’s Prayer contrast it with prayers that emphasize many words and religious formulas and the verses after it focus on the necessity of forgiveness. Our reading of the Lord’s Prayer must be informed by and account for these elements.

Second, each passage has a wider context in the book in which it occurs. To get a sense of the book context take a few minutes to read the introductory notes in the Common English Study Bible to the book you are studying and observe the outline of the whole. This will help you to gain an understanding of the role that the smaller passage with which you are working plays in the overall message of a book. Again looking at the Lord’s Prayer, we may observe that it falls within a larger segment (6:1-18) that serves to warn against public acts of piety (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) as a means to gaining rewards from God. Widening our lens a little more, we may observe that this text falls within a larger block of teaching materials known traditionally as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1–7:29). In this material Jesus is training his disciples for the ministry of announcing the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:17–11:1).

Reading in context is vital as a guard against misreading the meaning of a passage. A truism about reading in context is this: “A text without a context is a pretext.” Apart from reading a passage of Scripture in context we may easily make a text say what we desire for it to mean rather than to hear the message that the text itself wants us to hear. The wise reader must remember this: Read an individual text in light of its literary context. This practice alone will keep us from many errors.

There are other contexts that the wise reader will also be attentive to as time permits. First, information on the historical context or background can help us to gain a richer appreciation of a passage of Scripture. The study notes in this Bible will draw the reader’s attention to important historical details. In addition, readers may find it helpful to use a bible dictionary or a full-length commentary. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions opponents who are harassing the Philippian Christ followers (e.g., 1:28, 3:2, 3:18). Who are these opponents? Is there one group or are there several different opponents? What is the nature of their opposition? Answering these questions would provide helpful historical background for understanding Paul’s words to the Philippians.

Second, readers need to be aware of related texts that the passage we are studying alludes to and/or other passages that may allude to our text. Psalm 8 is a text that models both of these situations. Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to the Lord. It reflects on the status and mission of humanity in light of the majestic nature of God. Psalm 8:6-8 focuses on the stewardship role played by women and men over creation. The psalmist clearly has in mind the creation story in Genesis 1:1–2:3. If we are going to fully comprehend the message of Psalm 8, we will need to study how the psalmist interprets uses the material from Genesis. The savvy reader will also want to know that Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. If we are going to understand the full biblical meaning of Psalm 8, we will need to be aware of how the author of the book of Hebrews deploys Psalm 8 in his letter.

Reading with the Big Picture in Mind
Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture also involves understanding each individual passage and book within the overall context of the Bible as a whole. The Christian canon of sixty-six books links the Old and New Testament and proclaims an overarching narrative when viewed as a whole. We may observe the following framework that holds the discrete elements of the Bible together: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus the Messiah, Church, New Creation. The Bible begins with the story of the Creation of the world (Gen 1–2) and ends with the description of a future New Creation (Revelation 20–21). The biblical story opens with a very good world and ends with the recreation of very goodness. In between these bookends, we find the biblical story of the salvation of the people and all creation. The need for salvation is first described in Genesis 3–11. This section of Scripture describes the fundament problem in the world: human alienation and sin. This problem has fractured the very good creation described in Gen 1–2. God responds to this problem by calling a people for himself through whom he will bless all nations (Gen 12–Malachi). This people is named Israel. God calls Israel’s ancestors in Gen 12–50. He rescues them from slavery in Egypt and establishes a covenant relationship with them as a means of preparing them to serve as a people of blessing to the world, and leads them through the wilderness to the promised land of Canaan (Exodus–Deuteronomy). Joshua­–Esther narrate Israel’s life in Canaan, its times of obedience/disobedience, exile, and return. The wisdom books (Job–Song of Songs) include the prayers of God’s people and their reflections on the good life within God’s creation. The Old Testament ends with the Prophetic books. The Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi) serve to call God’s people back to their roots as the holy redeemed people through whom God will bless the nations and they also envision a radical future act of salvation. The New Testament opens with the four Gospels, which tell the story of the Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus announces the inbreaking of God’s future and fulfills the hopes and expectations of Israel’s Scriptures. Jesus’ death and resurrection marks the climax of God’s saving work and serves to announce the final victory of God. Acts–Rev 19 tells the story of the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit witnessing to all nations about the good news of Jesus. Revelation 20-21 brings the story full circle by envisioning the full consummation of God’s victory in a New Creation.

The wise reader keeps in mind this broader story as a means of understanding much smaller portions of the Bible. Again a balance must be maintained. To focus only on this broad summary risks missing the many nuances that individual biblical books and passages within them offer. If we only focus on the big picture we may flatten out the Bible by forcing its individual pieces to conform to our assumptions about the big picture. But to focus only on the specific details of smaller passages runs the risk of missing the overall message of the Bible. It is like having all of our clothing piled randomly in a closet without any discernible organizing principle. The big picture serves as hangers and dividers to make sense of our wardrobe. The wise reader will be aware simultaneously of the broader narratives and themes of the Bible while also hearing the witness of the individual passage under current consideration.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Attitudes for Reading Scripture

Attitudes for Reading Scripture

Learning to read the Scriptures well involves nurturing attitudes conducive to study and gaining technical skills to facilitate close reading. Both elements are necessary to become skilled and inspired readers who are able to engage the Bible as Christian Scripture. 

Study the Bible prayerfully. Prayer can enhance our study by putting us in touch with the subject of the Bible—God.  Prayer can help to shape and forge in us the proper mindset for engaging the Scriptures as the word of God. Pray a prayer for illumination such as “Lord, astonish me anew with the beauty and power of your Word” or “God, rather than asking you to help me master the text I am asking that you allow the text to master me.” The word “astonish” captures the potential power that we readers may find in the Bible. When we come away astonished, we know that we have touched the divine. When we pray for astonishment rather than mastery of the material, we learn a key truth about reading the Bible as Christian Scripture: It is less important that we master the text and more important that the text masters us. Beginning with prayer helps us to ground ourselves in the posture of a learner.

Study the Bible expectantly. We read the Bible as Christian Scripture in the expectation of encountering the living God through the words of the text. Open the Scriptures not merely to learn but to be shaped and transformed by the words that you find. We come to the Bible to gain wisdom and to be shaped by its message. It yields its fruit to those who come hungry and ready for the feast that it offers. When we read, be grateful for the opportunity for study and anticipate the life giving insights that we will find in the Bible’s pages.

Study the Bible persistently. Learning to read the Bible well is a habit to be nurtured over the course of our lives. Wise interpreters are not born but forged in consistent times of careful study. In other words, if we find ourselves struggling with reading the Bible, give it time. Like the farmer who systematically prepares the field, sows seeds, waters, pulls weeds, protects the fledging plants from insects, and applies fertilize—all in the hope for a bountiful yield at the harvest—so we as readers must be patient and persistent in doing the work necessary to receive the benefits of the Scriptures. Think of Scripture study as a faithful habit to practice rather than as a skill to be mastered.

Study the Bible intelligently. Christians read the Bible as the word of God, but we cannot forget that it was written by other human beings in the living languages spoken by the people of God in the ancient world (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). The Bible is not a code to be deciphered, but it is literature crafted carefully and intentionally to communicate its message clearly to its audience. As modern readers, we must use all of the tools available to us for understanding it including our minds. The biblical message may challenge our fundamental assumptions about life and question the status quo of our existence but it will not be illogical or run contrary to reason. We affirmed the need to read prayerfully, but this does not mean that we should turn off our own intellect. As thoughtful Christians, we affirm the need for prayer and the importance of close and critical study of the text. In doing so, we will not only gain fresh and profound insight from the Bible, but we will also learn the meaning of Jesus’ command to love God with our minds (Matt 22:37).

Study the Bible confidently. Bible study can sometimes be intimidating. On occasion we may not feel worthy or qualified to make interpretive decisions about the meaning of the text. Yet as generations of faithful and persistent readers bear witness, the Scriptures remain vital, offer profound insights, and speak words of life. The God of whom the Scriptures speak will bear fruit through faithful study. Bring a sense of anticipation and expectation to our reading of the Bible and we will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Power of Reading the Scriptures

The goal of reading the Scriptures is to hear the word of God and be shaped by its message. It is an opportunity to enter into the world imagined by the biblical writers and experience personal transformation so that we as modern readers may then serve as witnesses to its good news for humanity and all creation. 

History testifies to the power of the Scriptures to shape profoundly individuals and communities of faith who devote themselves to its study. This witness begins within the pages of the Bible and continues to the present day. 

 The book of Psalms opens with this description of the happy person in contrast to the ways of wicked: “Instead of doing those things, these persons love the LORD’s Instruction, and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!” (Psalm 1:2). The psalmist reminds us of the power of intentional and consistent reading of the Scripture for living the good life. 

In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus opened his public ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah and he lived out his life and mission in fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. After his resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples from the Scriptures. To be precise, Luke 24:45 says that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Scripture shaped the narrative of Jesus’ life. We read the Scriptures to find the grand story of God so that we may align our lives with it as Jesus did. 

The apostle Paul reminded his co-worker Timothy of the crucial role played by the Scriptures in the life of the early church: “Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” (2 Timothy 3:15-16) 

Augustine, the prominent early church Bishop and theologian, famously recounted his own conversion in which he interpreted the sound of children saying, “Tolle lege (Take and read)” as a sign to pick up the Bible. He opened to a passage from Romans and began to experience transformation in his life with the Gospel. 

Early Rabbinic literature instructs diligence in study for the fruit that may be gained from it: “Turn it and turn it over again and again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax gray and grow old over it, and stir not from it, for you cannot have any better rule than this.” [Mishnah Avot 5.22] 

John Wesley, 18th century evangelist and reformer, wrote this about the Bible: “I am a creature of a day. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God. I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book.” 

As we study the Bile, we open ourselves up to the same profound and life-giving influence. Perhaps we may too add our voice as a result of our study of Scripture to this chorus of witnesses.