Monday, June 1, 2015

Reading Scripture Wisely and Well: Steps to Achieving a Close Reading of a Passage in Its Scriptural Context

The following essay describes the attitudes and steps for reading the Bible carefully with an eye to teaching and preaching for both Christ followers and seekers.
  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?
  5. Read multiple translations. I recommend that interpreters use at least three different translations during the process of close reading. Make sure that you choose translations from different translational families. For example, little is gained by comparing the KJV with the NKJV. Avoid paraphrases. At minimum, the deployment of multiple translations will serve as a guard against a simple misunderstanding of the English. But more importantly, comparing translations will guide you to the seams that exist between translations. By seams, I mean those places where the exegetical difficulties present in the original show up in the form of tensions between translations that otherwise remain hidden underneath the uniformity of a given English translation. Look specifically for substantive differences between translations. Make sure that you understand the interpretive options presented by the different translations. Ask: How do the differences in translation change the meaning of the passage? For example, Genesis 1:1 reads classically in the KJV, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In some modern translations, v. 1 is understood as a clause dependent on the verse or verses that follow. The NRSV is representative of newer translational approaches, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,….”[3] At stake here are questions of the biblical understanding of cosmology and its relationship to its ancient near eastern context.[4] Reflect on the ways that the differences in translation seem to resolve interpretive issues.
  6. Reflect on the meaning of individual words. A couple of warnings: a) Don’t assume that you understand the meaning of words. When in doubt, always spend the time in word study. b) Don’t abuse the principal of “Scripture interprets Scripture” in defining words. It is folly to cite the meaning of a term used by one author when we are studying the writing of another. A classic example is the definition of faith. The writer of the Hebrews explicitly describes faith (Grk: pistis) in this manner: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Without a doubt, this is one of the clearest definitions of pistis in the Bible, but it is methodologically problematic to accept this as the definition of pistis in every other context. Words have meanings in relationship to the other words around them. Moreover, each biblical author may emphasize a different nuance of a word’s meaning. c) Don’t mistake common English definitions for a word for the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew term. For example, the Great Commandment or Shema contains a number of words that can be misinterpreted in translation. Deuteronomy 6:5, which reads in English translation, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Popular interpretations read these common English terms through a matrix more in line with Greek psychology and modern romantic sentiment than with Deuteronomy’s own ancient context. Study of the Hebrew (and cognate) usage suggests that “love” is in fact a covenant term exhorting committed obedience. “Heart” focuses on the center of human volition and rationality and not on the center of emotions. “Soul” is not the spiritual aspect or the “authentic” core of a human person, but instead Hebrew nephesh is descriptive of the totality of a person including the physical body. “Strength” is really better translated “everything else” or even “and then some” as it functions to intensify the seriousness and totality of the call to love God. Moreover, rather than suggesting three parallel spheres or attributes of loving God, “heart,” “soul,” and “strength” form a concentric structure that emphasizes to a superlative degree the whole-person commitment involved in “loving the LORD.”[5]
  7. Read each passage in its broader book context. We have used two metaphors for talking about reading the Scripture at different levels. We’ve emphasized the necessity of both an eagle’s eye view of the Scriptures and a ground level analysis of individual passages. Individual books serve as the middle ground.[6] This involves more work for the interpreter, but the payoff is immense. First, look for connections. Take time to look for other places in the same book where the author deploys the same words and phrases (or close synonyms). Such repetitions or recurrences are often purposeful and can lead to substantive insights. For example, in Philippians 3:1-16 Paul offers his own life as an example for the Philippian believers to emulate (3:17). When he is describing the zeal of his pre-Christ following life in 3:6, he boast that he was a “persecutor of the church.”[7] In 3:7-11 Paul recounts the dramatic transformation that he experienced through knowing Christ. This transformation moved Paul from a person rooted and secure in a righteousness derived from his own credentials and accomplishments to a person rooted in a righteousness through Jesus the Messiah.  In 3:16 Paul articulates a moment-by-moment orientation to life through Jesus by writing, “I am pressing on continually toward the goal to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Messiah Jesus.” The phrase “pressing on” is the same Greek word typically translated “persecute” in 3:6. Observing this connect offers a real insight into the transformation of Paul. Paul, as a Christ follower is no less zealous in his faith than he was as a Pharisee. But Paul has undergone a radical reorientation. His compass point has shifted to the Risen Jesus. Paul surrendered his pre-Christian rubric of a righteousness rooted in his own abilities and accomplishments for the ultimate prize—knowing Messiah Jesus. When knowing Jesus became Paul’s primary focus, Paul’s gifts and graces became a means of glorifying and honoring Jesus rather than a means of boasting of himself to others. Second, it is vital to make sure that we understand a discrete text’s function within the broader book. What contribution does our text play in the wider contours of the book? What would be lost or gained without it? How does it relate to the passages that precede and follow it? For example, Matthew 4:17 begins a major section of Matthew’s Gospel.[8] Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing the in-breaking new age of God’s saving reign, and by exhorting his hearers to realign themselves continually in light of the Kingdom. This verse serves as a general programmatic statement for understanding 4:17—16:20. To understand fully every discrete section requires that the reader reflect on how it informs a way of life in line with the Kingdom of heaven and that one realign one’s life in conformity to the vision of the text. In 8:1–17 Jesus models boundary-breaking acts of ministry with outsiders. This is no mere report of Jesus’ historical acts. It serves as a paradigm for shaping present and future followers of Jesus to live out the ethos of the kingdom of heaven.
  8. Read each passage within its broader canonical context. Texts do not exist in isolation from other texts. There are often multiple conversations taking place within the Bible between texts. In particular, it is vital to recognize and explore the ways in which the texts that we are studying stand in dialogue with other texts written before or after. For example, in its majestic praise of God, Psalm 8 looks back on the creation of humanity and God’s granting of dominion in Genesis 1:26–31 as a profound basis for worshipping God. As we interpret Psalm 8 it is vital to catch its connection back to Genesis and reflect on the way that Genesis informs our understanding of Psalm 8 (and vice versa). But there is more to Psalm 8. The writer to the Hebrews in chapter 2 verses 5–9 quotes Psalm 8:4–6 in part of his proclamation of the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. Thus, in understanding the meaning of Psalm 8 within its canonical context it is important to read it in conversation with both Genesis 1 and Hebrews 2. Likewise, this is also the case with a reading of Genesis 1 or Hebrews 2. However, not every biblical text will have explicit links to other passages as is the case with Psalm 8.
  9. Establish a research agenda to engage secondary resources. Thus far, we have described the process of engaging a biblical text first hand through the practice of close reading. The best close readings do not provide the final word on a text. As suggested, many of our best observations raise additional questions. Some questions can be answered through the close reading process, but others will require the use of the fruits of biblical scholarship. After you have pondered over the text using your own observation skills, ask yourself: What are the key questions that remain unanswered that I need to resolve in order to understand this passage of Scripture? At this point, the wise interpreter will turn to resources such as Bible dictionaries, atlases, theological word books, grammar and syntax texts, journal articles, and commentaries. 
  10. Use the best resources at your disposal. In the age of information, Internet search engines can quickly inundate an interpreter with more data than one could process in a lifetime. Biblical interpreters must learn to read all reference material critically. We must also eschew the tyranny of the available and commit ourselves to using the finest resources so that we are engaging the finest exegetical minds and not merely dialoging with those resources that make it onto the first screen pages of web searches. In general, such a commitment involves resisting popular authors and the latest fads for the commentaries and articles written by biblical scholars and for works by the classic interpreters of the past (early Church Fathers, the Reformers, John Wesley among others). It is critically important to use up-to-date Bible dictionaries and atlases so that one has access to the most recent discoveries as our understanding of the socio-historical background of the world of the Bible grows annually. Given the missional reality in which we find ourselves, we need to deploy the best and most penetrating resources in order to engage the text at the level that we need in our day.

[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).
[3]The NRSV lists two additional alternatives in footnotes: “When God began to create…” and “In the beginning God created….”
[4]For discussion of the four principal ways on construing Gen 1:1-3, see Terence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 35
[5]See the masterful exegetical study of the manifold issues present in the text by S. Dean McBride, “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27 (1973): 273-306.
[6]There is another intermediate level as well: corpus context. Books written by the same authors or redacted by the same community function in a way similar to book context in terms of helping to understand smaller passages and themes. For example, a passage in Galatians serves a role in the book of Galatians, but it also contributes to our understanding of Paul’s other letters. The same would be true of passages in Luke-Acts, John and John’s Letters, Ezra-Nehemiah, the Pentateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.
[7]Grk dioko
[8]David R. Bauer, The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Library of New Testament Studies: 31; Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 1989).

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