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How Should the Bible Be Understood?

Posted by Deanna Munger on June 13, 2017 at 9:30 AM

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Students in Mark Shipp's Spring 2017 class "Interpreting the Bible" wrote brief essays on their personal approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Deanna Munger's essay states succinctly some of the basics of hermeneutical philosophy in a simple and compelling way and is presented here for readers of the Austin Grad Christian Studies blog. 

Besides being a graduate student at Austin Grad and a full-time wife and mother, Deanna teaches Bible studies at the University Avenue Church of Christ in Austin, Texas.

My hermeneutic (i.e., my philosophy of interpretation) is that scripture is God’s progressive, incarnational revelation of his nature and of his purposes for his creation. 

1. Scripture is God's

First, scripture is God’s.  It is his project and his chosen vehicle.  He selected the written word as a major way to share what he wants humanity to know about him and he made the choices about how it would be conveyed.

2. Scripture is progressive

Second, scripture is progressive, having a structure that reveals more over time and through history about who God is and what he plans for the world.  God’s nature is first revealed as the transcendent creator, and then as the personal creator.  He reveals himself as a covenant God and later reveals his nameas YHWH, rendered LORD in most English translations.  He eventually reveals himself most fully through his own son, God made flesh, in Jesus Christ.   All this occurs through and is told in historical events.  

The Old Testament is God’s true revelation of himself and important to any understanding we have of Him.  It is true in its original sense, the sense it made to its original writers and readers, and we read it well when we investigate and understand as much as we can about the history and culture around which it was originally written and read. 

The New Testament is God’s true revelation of even more of himself – his three-fold nature, his choice of self-sacrifice, and his plan for redemption of all peoples.  We similarly read it well by understanding the relevant culture and history, and also by understanding how the Old forms the foundation for the New and how the New informs our fuller understanding of the Old. 

The canon of the Old and New Testaments is complete and fixed, and any part of the Bible is best read in light of all the other parts of the Bible.  Each part is both specific and connected.  The primary themes of God’s holiness, his desire for relationship with mankind, his redemptive purposes, his eagerness to give of himself to accomplish that redemption, and his willingness to elevate his creation to participate in his work, all resonate through all of scripture.

Learn 5 questions every Bible reader should ask

3. Scripture is incarnational

Third, scripture is incarnational.  It is the holy word that is written down in limited human language on earth-bound, physical materials by time-bound, imperfect people.  The Spirit of God inspired it all and it is all holy, worthy, and authoritative.  It is also influenced by human history and personality and affected by the rigors of time and wear. 

We must recognize that God chose these imperfect vehicles to convey his perfect truths, because God’s choice in itself reveals the truth about God.  If we pretend there is no weakness in the vehicle, not only do we fail to learn about who God is and how he chooses to work, but we set our faith up to fail the first time we find out about a wormhole in the text!  Just as Jesus became truly human and yet remained fully God, so the word is both human and perfect.

4. Scripture is revelation

Scripture is revelation: its primary purpose is to disclose God and his nature and purposes to us.  All the other important and useful elements of scripture – its skillful depiction of the human mind, moral precepts, guidance for living, comfort in crisis, view of the spiritual realm, and more – exist in the context of who God is.  Because scripture belongs to God and is his revelation, it is both beyond us, as much as God is beyond us, and is also understandable to us, in that God chooses to communicate with us.  The same themes reoccur and resonate across scripture because all truth flows from who God is.

The mystery of scripture is that it can be all these things, just as God is both just and merciful. 

We have many tools by which to study scripture, all of which can be useful.  We can and should look at the history of events, writers, original audience and surrounding cultures; at the sources inside and outside scripture; at literary parallels and genres; at the formation of the text into its final form; at word meaning and selection; and at the literary elements of structure, characterization, and point of view. 

I commend all these tools to academic students, but also to the church.  The understanding, depth, and connections revealed by all these tools allow us to view the truth of scripture more fully and more truly, and I believe the church is hungry for these deeper studies. 

Read more about how best to read the Bible

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others.  Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

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