Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reading Wisely and Well: Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in its Scriptural Context (Part One)

  1. Pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is vital for engaging the Scriptures. My working assumption is that the Bible is inspired by God, preserved by God, and illuminated by God. Thus, we must pray for God's guidance. Moreover, let us pray that God may astonish us anew with the riches of the text.
  2. Assume the posture of a servant before the text. Do not read the text with the goal of mastering it. Read the text in the hope that it will master you.
  3. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. One of the causes of poor interpretation is the assumption that the reader already knows the meaning of the biblical text. Reflect on the genre of the passage. Is the text a narrative, a genealogy, prophesy, poetry, a parable, or discursive literature? If you have the ability to study the text in the original languages, do it. Reading the text in Greek or Hebrew forces the reader to slow down naturally. Regardless, ponder the words and phrases used by the author. In the popular imagination and practice, interpreting Scripture is a matter of flipping back and forth to other parts of the Bible in order to understand what a given text is saying.[1] Resist this. Stay put within the confines of the text you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Break it into its logical or thematic units. Reflect on how the narrative or author’s thinking progresses. Don’t give up. Commit yourself to being like Jacob who refused to let go of God until he received a blessing. Biblical interpretation does not really begin until you have engaged the text in a process of careful and sustained reading and reflection. The process will be generative in terms of insights and the framing of new questions. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking.
  4. Ask questions of the text. Engaged reading involves much more than note-taking. Over time I have discovered that the best interpreters of the Scripture were those men and women who asked the most penetrating questions. The 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.[2] In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at three levels: Definition, Function, and Implications. Definitional 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?” of the issue. Implicational questions attempt to probe beneath the surface to ferret out the deep meaning. 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 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 definitional 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? Finally we end with implicational questions: What are the full implications of our findings for understanding the theology and assumptions of Exodus 19:4-6? What does Exodus 19:4-6 assume to be true?
I'll post the followup blogs over the next few days. 
© 2015 Brian D. Russell

[1]This is a profound misappropriation and misunderstanding of the dictum: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Of course this is true. But the principal assumes that one has already carefully studied a text within its original context and found its meaning elusive. Only then does the interpreter turn to other passages where the meaning may be clearer and instructive for understanding our first text.
[2]I have been formed immeasurably through Inductive Bible Study as taught at Asbury Theological Seminary. Seminal texts include: Robert Traina, Methodical Bible Study; David L. Thompson, Bible Study that Works; and Robert A. Traina and David R. Bauer, Inductive Bible Study:A Descriptive Guide to the Study of the Bible (Baker Academic, 2010).

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