For a series of this length, it is good to periodically include a recap or two. We’ve covered a lot of material so far and below is a brief synopsis.
In part one of the series, we covered the importance of theology and why it is absolutely crucial to move away from simply professing belief in a list of doctrines to actually see the interconnectedness of one’s faith. In addition, we covered some of the major arguments for the existence of God in an attempt to show that theism is just as rational a proposition as atheism or agnosticism.
Related Article: How to Press Into the Presence of God
In part two of the series, we engaged in a theological exercise to determine what is the least risky religion to follow. We discovered that Christianity makes some very bold claims, including that salvation, can only be found in Jesus Christ. In addition, generally speaking, other religions seem to either provide an infinite number of do-overs to get things right with god/s (or the universe) or have a very wide salvation umbrella that covers Christians as well. Thus, we reasoned that Christianity is a good religion to practice since it is the “safest,” or the least risky. Yet a dilemma surfaced there: even if we want to be Christians, which version of Christianity should we follow?
Part three of the series was a search for God’s signature in the Bible, which would authenticate it as the Word of God. Once we established that the Bible was trustworthy, we committed to using it as a tool in identifying the right version of Christianity to practice—specifically, a Bible-based Christianity.
In part four we realized we needed to do a bit more work before we attempted to reconstruct the Christian faith from the Bible. We saw that we really shouldn’t assume we know how to use the Bible correctly (i.e. read, study, and apply it). We also reasoned that we first needed to study the history of the Bible’s formation, which would give us a clue on to how to properly use it. By the end of part four, we discovered that the Bible is a book of revelations from God, given to prophets, and communicated to the church and the world.
In parts five and six we covered the topic of inspiration—how God’s revelations become words on a page. We discovered that only prophets and apostles are qualified authors of Scripture, and we learned how to test individuals who make a claim to this office in the church. We also saw to what lengths God is willing to go to preserve His word from misleading or deceptive content.
Related Article: Embracing the Bible as a Story
So, where does that leave us? Well, we are now finally prepared to talk about how to actually use the Bible—that is, how to study and interpret it. Let’s dig in!
Learning to Study the Bible Correctly
Now that we have good reasons to believe there is a God, and that He has communicated his will to humanity through the Bible, it’s time to actually look at how to read and study his Word. We’ll do this in four steps. First, we’ll define hermeneutics. Next, we’ll identify tools and aids that can help us interpret the Bible accurately. Thirdly, we will discuss the power of presuppositions. Fourthly, we will identify some basic presuppositions (that are critical to a Biblical reading of Scripture). Lastly, we will establish the differences between Biblical hermeneutics and other types of hermeneutics. Let’s begin with defining hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics can be described as the art or science of interpreting a text. We use hermeneutics routinely—whenever we seek to understand a piece of literature, be it the Bible, or Shakespeare. The simplest way to define hermeneutics is to just substitute the word “interpretation.”
Simple so far, right?
It seems straightforward but hermeneutics can get very complicated very quickly! For example, at times the word “hermeneutics” is prefixed with a modifier or adjective that adds a whole new shade of meaning to the raw definition. The preceding word typically describes a particular worldview or perspective. Here are a few examples:
- Feminist hermeneutics,
- Liberation-theology hermeneutics,
- Christo-centric hermeneutics.
So, what do all these modifiers mean? Take feminist hermeneutics, for example. Feminists are individuals who believe in the equality of the genders/sexes, so they oppose abusive patriarchy and misogyny in any form. Now, the Bible has plenty to say on the equality of the genders, and therefore it would be perfectly appropriate to employ a feminist hermeneutic when interpreting it, if one’s aim is to simply affirm the equality of men and women, especially in abusive patriarchal contexts. In this case, feminism acts as a lens for the Bible student. It would be approaching the Bible with a particular worldview that magnifies something one is already looking for.
The problem with feminist hermeneutics is if it goes too far and forgets the lessons we have learned previously about the revelation and inspiration of Scripture. If the foundation (the fact that the Bible comes from God and that God has preserved His word from being tainted with deception or falsehoods) is not retained, the Bible student could easily allow feminist ideology to corrupt the interpretation of Scripture or one’s view of Scripture itself. For example, some extreme feminists (though very few in number) regard the Bible with suspicion because they believe it was written by men with vested interests in preserving misogyny and abusive forms of patriarchy. Viewing the Bible or its writers with suspicion will seldom lead to a correct interpretation. As you can see, feminist hermeneutics has both a good and a bad side, depending on whether one goes to extremes.
Liberation-theology hermeneutics exhibits the same spectrum of positive and negative interpretive outcomes.
Related Article: What I Learned by Listening to the Bible
Christo-centric hermeneutics, on the other hand, does not suffer from the same weaknesses because it is derived organically from the Bible itself. As Luke 24:27 shows, Christ is the center and overarching theme of Scripture.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27, NIV)
Basic Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics
What we want to utilize in our Bible study, especially in our task of reconstructing biblical doctrines in an interconnected way, is a “biblical hermeneutic.” Such a hermeneutic is derived from Scripture itself and contains many principles, including the following three:
- First and foremost, a biblical hermeneutic seeks to constantly solidify its methods by deriving its hermeneutic from Scripture itself.
- Secondly, a biblical hermeneutic rejects human theories and agendas that cannot be found in the text of Scripture.
- Thirdly, a biblical hermeneutic uses the simple/clear statements in Scripture to clarify the complex/obscure ones.
Now that we know the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics, let’s look at some tools that help us understand the Bible better.
Hermeneutics: Tools of the Trade
The aids and tools of biblical hermeneutics can be divided into two categories: (1) inspired sources, and (2) uninspired resources.
The difference between “sources” and “resources” is important. Sources are normative (supremely authoritative), primary, and essential. Resources are subject to sources (as in they are subservient and do not have the authority of sources), secondary in importance, and ultimately non-essential. By “normative” I mean that sources are the standard. By “primary” I mean that sources should be consulted first. By essential I mean that sources are indispensable to the student’s objectives.
We can divide Bible study materials as seen below:
A literal translation of the Bible,
or various translations of the Bible
Study Bible Notes
To better grasp the difference between sources and resources, let’s think of the Bible as a map that helps us reach our study goals, which are:
(1) to understand and receive salvation,
(2) to achieve unity with other believers, and
(3) to be effective in mission.
As a source, the Bible is like a map in black and white, completely sufficient to guide us in achieving our objectives. However, the resources add color and enrich the student’s journey towards the goal. The important thing to remember is that the Bible is all we need. If that is all we had, it would get us to where we need to go. Resources are nice (and they can certainly make the Bible come alive) but they are not essential, primary, or normative. The only essential aspect to a Bible study is having a Bible.
Which Bible Though?
Since having a Bible is critical to doing a Bible study, we need to think about what type of Bible we want to use. Though I typically use electronic Bibles these days, I would still recommend purchasing your own hardcopy if you don’t have one. But before you purchase a new Bible it is important to think about which translation would be right for you.
The prophet Jeremiah provides a good paradigm for thinking about Bible translations. When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight… (Jeremiah 15:16a, NIV)
Like Jeremiah, I like to think of the Bible as (spiritual) food. Though imperfect, we can extend this metaphor even further when comparing Bible translations. Most people agree that the best way to receive all the benefits and nutrients from the food we eat is to eat it in the rawest form that we are capable of digesting. The same is true for the Bible.
Apples or Apple Pie?
Bibles can be broken down into 4 different types when it comes to translations: (1) original languages, (2) literal, (3) dynamic, and (4) paraphrase. So how does this relate to food? Think about apples. One can consume apples in a variety of ways. Probably the best way, in terms of nutritional value, is eating an apple raw. The next level of nutrition might be something like dried apples. Perhaps the next best thing would be applesauce. Lastly, the furthest away from the original apple in nutritional value and yet utterly delicious would be apple pie.
Related Article: Which Translation is the Best?
The closer we can get to the original languages the better, but always keep in mind that the best way to eat an apple is in the rawest AND most digestible form that you can handle. Hebrew and Greek would be the equivalent of eating raw apples, full of nutrients, but hard work as it will take some serious chewing! If this is something you’d like to take on I’d recommend picking up a Hebrew or Greek grammar to start with, along with Bible software that contains the original languages so that you can look up words as you read. However, some of us will never have the time or opportunity to taste Hebrew or Greek, but do not let that discourage you! The Holy Spirit is more than capable of leading you into all truth regardless of your Bible translation. (John 16:13)
The next best thing after Hebrew and Greek (raw apples) are dried apples—or literal translations. Dried apples may still require some serious chewing like raw apples but dried apples are definitely sweeter and therefore more palatable. Literal translations attempt to do the impossible, which is to produce a word-for-word translation. Again, this is impossible regardless of the language the translator is trying to translate into. Language just isn’t that simple or clean. Some translations even try to preserve the original word order and sentence structure. An example of this would be the Young’s Literal Translation (YLT). Unfortunately, in Bible times (especially in Hebrew) people spoke and wrote like Yoda from Star Wars which can make reading the Bible a real chore and unnecessarily rough to read. Some examples of more reader-friendly literal translations are: King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV), English Standard Version (ESV), Revised Standard Version (RSV), and New American Standard Bible (NASB). If you desire to get as close to the original languages as possible but don’t have the time or patience for Greek and Hebrew, a literal translation is what I would recommend. Studying one of the translations listed above can be challenging at times but the rewards are well worth the effort!
Related Article: Choosing a Translation
One more step further towards apple pie is a dynamic equivalent translation. By far the most famous of this type of translation is the New International Version (NIV). Dynamic equivalency is an attempt to translate the Bible “thought-for-thought” as opposed to “word-for-word” like in a literal translation. The NIV is very good at preserving the idiomatic speech and jargon of the Bible writers, and yet makes it accessible for today. I equate dynamic equivalent translations to applesauce. Smooth, sweet, and goes down easy. The bad side is that it doesn’t require much if any chewing, and in some ways has been “pre-chewed” (interpreted) for the eater! Since these translations seek to reproduce thoughts, a great degree of interpretation will inevitably accompany the translation. Examples of dynamic equivalent translations are the NIV and TNIV (Todays NIV).
Related Article: How to Faithfully Interpret the Bible Literally
The last type of translation is a paraphrase, which, technically speaking, is not a translation. Indeed, many (but not all) paraphrases do not even consult the original languages but are really a rewording of an existing English translation. The purpose of a paraphrase is to make the Bible understandable for everyone. I would compare a paraphrase to warm apple pie. The apples have been processed, cooked, sweetened with additives, packaged in a flaky mouthwatering crust and served with a side of vanilla ice cream. There are no difficulties to be had when eating apple pie; it is simply a joy and a pleasure. The problem is that apple pie is not entirely healthy. Sure, it still contains apples but the nutritional benefit will be very different when compared to that of raw apples. Paraphrases are great for seekers and new believers. They make the Bible accessible and simple. I personally enjoy picking up a paraphrase now and then for devotional purposes. But paraphrases are not so good for long-term serious Bible study. Though they can be a great place to start, especially if you’re trying to grasp the storyline and the major Bible themes, I would not recommend staying there. Have a plan to transition to a dynamic equivalent or literal translation when you feel comfortable doing so. Examples of paraphrase Bibles are The Message, New Living Translation (NLT), and The Clear Word. (Editorial Note: It should be noted that the Message Bible is translated from the original languages.)
|Raw Apples||Hebrew & Koine Greek||Nestle-Auland 28 (Greek), Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Hebrew)|
|Dried Apples||Literal||KJV, NKJV, RSV, NASB, ESV, YLT|
|Apple Sauce||Dynamic Equivalent||NIV, TNIV|
|Apple Pie||Paraphrase||The Clear Word, NLT, The Message|
Remember that the best way to receive all the benefits and nutrition from an article of food is to eat it in its rawest form you are capable of digesting. So, pick a Bible that is as close to the original languages as possible but that you are still able to “digest”—that is, to understand. Lastly, don’t let anyone judge you for the Bible you choose to read and use for study (even if it’s a paraphrase). The Holy Spirit can reach you through any Bible you pick up. (John 16:13)
Once you’ve picked your Bible translation, remember these two rules:
- KNOW WHAT YOU ARE EATING!
- DON’T SKIP MEALS!
Following these two rules will preserve you from several pitfalls in your journey towards a Biblical Christianity. Just as with any meal you’re about to feast on, know what you are eating. Remember what type of translation you’re consuming. Keeping in mind the benefits and shortcomings of the Bible version you use will help you stay humble and tentative about what you claim the Bible says. It will also make you alert to certain discrepancies or issues in the translation that don’t “jive” with what you’re certain of, based on translations closer to the Hebrew or Greek. In addition, skipping meals on a regular basis is a bad idea. It is important to read the Bible on a regular basis. Having a regular devotional life is vital to grasp a true understanding of Scripture. Regardless of the translation, the Bible is a complex book and should be studied on a regular basis to take advantage of its life-changing qualities.
Back to Resources
In addition to the Bible—the source of theology—resources such as concordances, dictionaries, atlases, etc. can be extremely helpful. The key is to remember that these resources are uninspired and should never be allowed to rule over the Bible. They should enhance what the Bible says, not change what the Bible says. As stated earlier in our analogy to a map, resources simply add color by way of historical context, theological intertextuality, etc. Nowadays there is a wealth of resources available online—many for free.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line when it comes to Bible study comes from God Himself. In John 7:17 Jesus gives us a promise, and as we previously learned, he cannot lie. Read what Jesus has to say to you in regards to studying Scripture.
If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself. (John 7:17, NASB)
If we truly want to know God and are willing to obey what he tells us in Scripture, with the Holy Spirit’s help (John 16:13) we will ultimately understand God’s truth for ourselves.
So, these are the tools of the trade we call theology. But there is one last source or resource we need to address, which, if you’re an Adventist, is a huge elephant in the room. When it comes to Bible study and theology, “What Should we do with Ellen White?”
 Of course, there are caveats to this claim in that God will not condemn someone for not coming to faith in Jesus Christ if they never had an opportunity to actually hear the gospel. But even so, the claim that salvation can only be found in Jesus is still true, whether we embrace the opportunity to know Christ in this life, or whether we will be granted this opportunity in the life to come because we lacked an occasion to know him now. In either case, salvation, wittingly or unwittingly, comes through Christ. It is the explicit rejection of Christ that will ultimately condemn people, not ignorance.
 That is, unless one begins to employ allegorical methods of interpretation, in which Christ is seen literally everywhere in Scripture.
 Though some feminist principles and liberation-theology principles can be derived from Scripture, other hermeneutical approaches are just plain wacky. If you’ve ever watched the history channel and its attempts to “explain” the Bible you’ll know what I’m talking about. Series like “UFOs and the Bible” and the like are seriously flawed approaches to understanding the Bible.
 These three goals were covered in a previous article.
 If you’re a fancy person check out EvangelicalBible.com. For researching good Bibles to purchase in terms of leather and paper quality check out the Bible Design Blog by Mark Bertram. Another good option is the Andrews Study Bible, which can be purchased from Andrews University Press.
 Adventists might be interested to learn that Ellen White (as well as several of the pioneers) used various translations of the Bible in addition to the KJV. Ellen White herself appears to have been an early adopter of new versions of the Bible. See the EGW Estate article The E.G. White Counsel on Versions of the Bible by Arthur L. White.
 Strictly speaking, the original languages and paraphrases are not translations. The original languages are the basis for translations and paraphrases are more akin to interpretations rather than translations.