Part 2 – Did not our hearts burn?: expository reading
*Editors note: You can read part 1 of this series here.
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
The hermeneutical guideline of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” has long been espoused by Christian interpreters, going back at least to Augustine (A.D. 354-430) and Irenaeus (A.D. 130-200). If we believe that all the Bible is inspired by God and thus noncontradictory, passages of Scripture that are less clear should be interpreted with reference to those that are more transparent in meaning.
Another dimension of letting Scripture interpret Scripture means listening to the full panoply of texts that touch upon a subject. For example, if we were to read God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-12, we might conclude that even today all male worshippers of God must be circumcised. Yet, we read in 1 Corinthians 7:19, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” By understanding the trajectory of Scripture (that OT Law and promises are fulfilled in Christ), we see that circumcision served a preparatory role for the Jewish nation but is no longer required of God’s people. The author of Hebrews says that the Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves (Heb 10:1). Paul can circumcise a coworker as a means of strategic missionary accommodation to unregenerate Jews (Acts 16:3), but when the basis of salvation is at stake, Paul is unbending (Gal 2:3). This brief survey demonstrates how a nuanced understanding of a subject requires the consideration of multiple biblical texts that touch upon it.
Meditate on the Bible
[tweetable]The Bible is not a book for superficial reading.[/tweetable] While it is certainly beneficial to read large portions of Scripture in one sitting, [tweetable]no biblical diet is complete without extended rumination on a smaller portion of text.[/tweetable] It is instructive that many Christians have found it best to start their prayers with quiet and sustained reflection on a small portion of Scripture. God himself provides the words for our prayers in the Bible. The Puritan Thomas Manton (1620-1677) wrote, “Meditation is a middle sort of duty between the Word and prayer, and hath respect to both. The Word feedeth meditation, and meditation feedeth prayer … These duties must always go hand in hand” (The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 17, Sermons on Several Texts of Scripture).
Approach the Bible in Faith and Obedience
[tweetable]The Bible is not a philosophy textbook to be debated; it is a revelation from God to be believed and obeyed.[/tweetable] As we believe and obey God’s Word, we will experience not only joy (Ps 119:72) but also, more importantly, God’s blessing, or approval. James writes:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (Jas 1:22-25).
At the same time, we must remember that obedience to God’s Word can never be brought about by increased human effort, but is possible only through Christ. As the apostle John writes,
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:3-5).
The person who reads Scripture and does not obey it is self-deceived (Jas 1:22). To claim to know God while consistently and consciously disobeying his Word is to demonstrate the falseness of one’s claim. The apostle John writes, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). [tweetable]Reading God’s Word coupled with obedience brings glory to God and will make you a more effective Bible reader.[/tweetable]
Take Note of the Biblical Genre You Are Reading
If your son were to come home from school and claim to have “a ton” of homework, you would not discipline him for lying. You would understand that he is using hyperbole to express his strong emotions. In the same way, we need to approach the Bible as sympathetic readers, respecting the various genres and authorial assumptions that accompany such genres. For example, the genre of proverbs generally assumes exceptions. Proverbs are wise advice, not fail-proof promises. For example, we read in Proverbs 10:4, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” All of us can think of examples from our lives that confirm this proverb. At the same time, most of us likely know a few lazy, rich people. Such exceptions do not make the proverb false. Rather, such exceptions confirm the general rule. Proverbs offer wise advice for ordering our lives, but most of them assume exceptions.
The genre of historical narrative also includes a number of authorial assumptions. For example, the biblical authors employ historical narrative to report many events of which they do not necessarily approve. The author of Judges clearly does not think sacrificing one’s daughter is a good thing (Judg 11), though he fails to give his opinion on Jephthah’s actions in the immediate context. Similarly, many Scriptures teach that drunkenness is wrong, though the apostle John does not feel the need to note its impropriety in John 2:10, where there is a passing reference to inebriation. (A friend of mine once actually appealed to John 2:10 to make a “biblical” case for excessive drinking.) The author of a historical narrative does not always give explicit sanction or condemnation for behavior reported. One must thoughtfully determine what is simply reported and what is intended as normative.
Robert L. Plummer serves as associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary