Guest Blogger: Brendon R. Witte
Ninety percent of properly interpreting the Bible is finding the right lens through which to view the text. For example, one cannot properly interpret Proverbs until he or she realizes that its genre is Wisdom Literature. Without this lens, passages like Proverbs 26:4–5 seem nonsensical:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Those who have not been schooled in genre theory cite this as the most blatant biblical contradiction. However, those who have been given the proper lens know that Wisdom Literature values apparent contradictions, as they force the reader to reflect on what has been written. Solomon places these contrary sayings side-by-side to stress the futility of interacting in either a positive or negative manner with a fool. If there is no appropriate way to handle the actions of a fool, he or she should be avoided as best as possible.
Thus, discovering the correct lens through which to read any biblical text is extremely important. But do not be fooled; even though the appropriate lens is important, this does not mean that it is easy to uncover. There are many obstacles to obtaining a suitable perspective on the context of a passage. Perhaps the greatest hinderances are our biases, traditions, and laziness in studying the Word. Sometimes we are prohibited by things we cannot control, such as our temporal and social distance from the biblical text and and the fact that we are mentally flawed human beings (sometimes we naturally miss important aspects of what we read). Whatever the reason or reasons might be that we sometimes cannot capture the proper framework by which to read a text, we must constantly remember that obstacles are everywhere and in every level of our reading. This implies that many of our reasoned guesses about textual meaning are wrong.
Please don’t let this make you want to give up the search for biblical truth. I am not saying that it is impossible to find the lens and, thereby, understand the text as it was intended by the author and God. I merely wish you to know fully the trials of the interpretative process. It will take patience, prayer, and hard work. “I don’t know” and “I was wrong” will become commonly spoken statements. The process will be enlightening and infinitely enriching, but it will also be humbling, sometimes painfully so.
Although everyone needs a good dose of humility every once and a while, what are some of the ways you can avoid saying your interpretation did not accurately reflect the text? There are quite literally dozens of ways to discover the apposite lens for a certain passage, but due to wording constraints, the following details the three techniques I find most useful:
• Thoroughly Read and Re-read the Word
• Determine the Genre of the Text
• Read Commentaries
Thoroughly Read and Re-read the Word
Aside from a handful of geniuses, humans cannot fully comprehend the intricacies of a written work on the first, or even second, reading. To grasp fully the meaning of something as little as a text message, we often need two or more readings. Why, then, should we think that we have grasped a piece of Scripture if we have only read it once?
Studying the Word takes time and repetition. Reading a passage one or two times is simply not enough. I suggest that to really understand a verse, the verse and the surrounding context (sometimes the whole book) must be read at least 25–50 times. The more context you can include in your reading, the more accurate your interpretation will be. This should include reading any citations of Old Testament passages in their own contexts. Such repetition and thoroughness will allow you to see the small details of the picture the author has painted because it increases the size of your lens.
Determine the Genre of the Text
“Genre,” in the simplest of terms, is the type or category of a piece of literature or art. Examples of biblical genres are wisdom, epistle, apocalypse, gospel (i.e., biography), collected biography, history, etc.
The Book of Revelation, for instance, belongs broadly in the genre of apocalypse. J. J. Collins defined “apocalypse” as…
A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world (Apocalyptic Imagination, 4).
Hence, it would not be proper to interpret Revelation as one would wisdom literature, even though there are some affinities. Revelation does not make broad generalizing statements about ethical and social issues; it refers to specific present and future historical realities, both on earth and in heaven. Nor would it be proper to suggest Revelation is merely a historical document. Although some of Revelation (possibly even half) speaks in mystical imagery about past events from the perspective of the author, the emphasis is placed on future realities.
Likewise, the meaning of individual passages in Ecclesiastes change dramatically if one reads the book as a wisdom-centered dialogue between two debaters rather than a wisdom-centered discourse written from the perspective of one person. That is, is the book a monologue:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.
Or is Ecclesiastics a dialogue between a pessimist and an optimist:
Person 1: “A time to be born!”
Person 2: “A time to die!”
Person 1: “A time to plant!”
Person 2: “A time to pluck up what is planted!
As you can see, there are stark differences between these literary types and subtypes, and each decision concerning genre changes one’s lens drastically. Therefore, genre issues are very important for understanding biblical texts.
How, then, does the common Christian determine for him or her self the genre of a book? The hard and more thorough way is to read any book concerning genre you can. However, this can be time consuming and often requires a level of knowledge many do not possess. The easy and more accessible way is to go to men and women who do have the time and knowledge to determine genre. Unless you have one such person in your family or circle of friends, this means going to a commentary.
Years ago one of my teachers stated, “The only thing commentators are good for is making french fries!” Although cute, his statement exhibited his ignorance. Yes, running to commentaries before you have studied the text as much as possible without assistance can be damaging. Not only does such a course of action promote laziness, it prevents people from ever thinking for themselves. This does not mean, though, that all commentaries are pedagogically ruinous. They can be very helpful if you need information quickly that is outside your means to procure otherwise.
When you choose a commentary to read, pay close attention to three aspects:
First, the introduction, i.e., the background material generally placed at the beginning of the commentary, is your friend. Use it! This is where the author should talk about the genre of the book, as well as the author, the date of composition, the audience, and more. This will help you establish the lens through which to read a certain passage and its surrounding context. Don’t skip the introduction!
Second, try to read above your knowledge level. This does not mean that you need to read commentaries that delve into the finer details of discourse analysis and socio-linguist theory if you have no formal training. But it does mean that you should supplement your devotional commentaries with at least one pastoral or light scholarly commentary. We should constantly seek to broaden our intellectual horizons, and this is a great way to do so.
Third, choose commentaries written by people who do not belong in your denomination. I can’t tell you how many times I have been enlightened by commentaries written by researchers who were Catholic, or Lutheran, or Methodist, or even Presbyterian. I know! Shocking! All joking aside, read the commentaries of those with whom you may not often agree. Why? You and I have deep-seeded biases that can keep us from reading the Bible rightly that cannot be removed if all we do is read and listen to people who agree with us.
I pray that these suggestions assist you in evolving into the biblical researcher God wants you to be. Of course, just by utilizing these tips you will not become a master of biblical interpretation, nor will you find yourself never having to admit your interpretations are wrong. But, when used properly and frequently, these suggestions should bring you closer to the meaning of the text because you are, at least, one step closer to finding the right lens.