A GUIDE TO GOOD BIBLE READING:

A PERSONAL SEARCH FOR VERIFIABLE TRUTH

What follows is a brief explanation of Dr. Bob Utley’s hermeneutical philosophy and the procedures used in his commentaries.

Guide to Good Bible Reading
Guide to Good Bible Reading Video -- 40 min.

Can we know truth? Where is it found? Can we logically verify it? Is there an ultimate authority? Are there absolutes which can guide our lives, our world? Is there meaning to life? Why are we here? Where are we going? These questions—questions that all rational people contemplate—have haunted the human intellect since the beginning of time (Eccl. 1:13-18; 3:9-11). I can remember my personal search for an integrating center for my life. I became a believer in Christ at a young age, based primarily on the witness of significant others in my family. As I grew to adulthood, questions about myself and my world also grew. Simple cultural and religious clichés did not bring meaning to the experiences I read about or encountered. It was a time of confusion, searching, longing, and often a feeling of hopelessness in the face of the insensitive, hard world in which I lived.

Many claimed to have answers to these ultimate questions, but after research and reflection I found that their answers were based upon (1) personal philosophies, (2) ancient myths, (3) personal experiences, or (4) psychological projections. I needed some degree of verification, some evidence, some rationality on which to base my worldview, my integrating center, my reason to live.
I found these in my study of the Bible. I began to search for evidence of its trustworthiness, which I found in (1) the historical reliability of the Bible as confirmed by archaeology, (2) the accuracy of the prophecies of the Old Testament, (3) the unity of the Bible message over the sixteen hundred years of its production, and (4) the personal testimonies of people whose lives had been permanently changed by contact with the Bible. Christianity, as a unified system of faith and belief, has the ability to deal with complex questions of human life. Not only did this provide a rational framework, but the experiential aspect of biblical faith brought me emotional joy and stability.

I thought that I had found the integrating center for my life—Christ, as understood through the Scriptures. It was a heady experience, an emotional release. However, I can still remember the shock and pain when it began to dawn on me how many different interpretations of this book were advocated, sometimes even within the same churches and schools of thought. Affirming the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible was not the end, but only the beginning. How do I verify or reject the varied and conflicting interpretations of the many difficult passages in Scripture by those who were claiming its authority and trustworthiness?
This task became my life’s goal and pilgrimage of faith. I knew that my faith in Christ had brought me great peace and joy. My mind longed for some absolutes in the midst of the relativity of my culture and the dogmatism of conflicting religious systems and denominational arrogance. In my search for valid approaches to the interpretation of ancient literature, I was surprised to discover my own historical, cultural, denominational and experiential biases. I had often read the Bible simply to reinforce my own views. I used it as a source of dogma to attack others while reaffirming my own insecurities and inadequacies. How painful this realization was to me!

Although I can never be totally objective, I can become a better reader of the Bible. I can limit my biases by identifying them and acknowledging their presence. I am not yet free of them, but I have confronted my own weaknesses. The interpreter is often the worst enemy of good Bible reading! Let me list some of the presuppositions I bring to my study of the Bible so that you, the reader, may examine them along with me:

I. Presuppositions

  1. I believe the Bible is the sole inspired self-revelation of the one true God. Therefore, it must be interpreted in light of the intent of the original divine author through a human writer in a specific historical setting.
  2. I believe the Bible was written for the common person—for all people! God accommodated Himself to speak to us clearly within a historical and cultural context. God does not hide truth—He wants us to understand! Therefore, it must be interpreted in light of its day, not ours. The Bible should not mean to us what it never meant to those who first read or heard it. It is understandable by the average human mind and uses normal human communication forms and techniques.
  3. I believe the Bible has a unified message and purpose. It does not contradict itself, though it does contain difficult and paradoxical passages. Thus, the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself.
  4. I believe that every passage (excluding prophesies) has one and only one meaning based on the intent of the original, inspired author. Although we can never be absolutely certain we know the original author’s intent, many indicators point in its direction:
    1. the genre (literary type) chosen to express the message
    2. the historical setting and/or specific occasion that elicited the writing
    3. the literary context of the entire book as well as each literary unit
    4. the textual design (outline) of the literary units as they relate to the whole message
    5. the specific grammatical features employed to communicate the message
    6. the words chosen to present the message

The study of each of these areas becomes the object of our study of a passage. Before I explain my methodology for good Bible reading, let me delineate some of the inappropriate methods being used today that have caused so much diversity of interpretation, and that consequently should be avoided:

II. Inappropriate Methods

  1. Ignoring the literary context of the books of the Bible and using every sentence, clause, or even individual words as statements of truth unrelated to the author’s intent or the larger context. This is often called "proof-texting.”
  2. Ignoring the historical setting of the books by substituting a supposed historical setting that has little or no support from the text itself.
  3. Ignoring the historical setting of the books and reading it as the morning hometown newspaper written primarily to modern individual Christians.
  4. Ignoring the historical setting of the books by allegorizing the text into a philosophical/theological message totally unrelated to the first hearers and the original author’s intent.
  5. Ignoring the original message by substituting one’s own system of theology, pet doctrine, or contemporary issue unrelated to the original author’s purpose and stated message. This phenomenon often follows the initial reading of the Bible as a means of establishing a speaker’s authority. This is often referred to as "reader response” ("what-the-text-means-to-me” interpretation).

    At least three related components may be found in all written human communication:

Free Bible Commentaries by Dr. Bob Utley, Professor of Hermeneutics

In the past, different reading techniques have focused on one of the three components. But to truly affirm the unique inspiration of the Bible, a modified diagram is more appropriate:

Free Bible Commentaries by Dr. Bob Utley, Professor of Hermeneutics

In truth all three components must be included in the interpretive process. For the purpose of verification, my interpretation focuses on the first two components: the original author and the text. I am probably reacting to the abuses I have observed (1) allegorizing or spiritualizing texts and (2) "reader response” interpretation (what-it-means-to-me). Abuse may occur at each stage. We must always check our motives, biases, techniques, and applications. But how do we check them if there are no boundaries to interpretations, no limits, no criteria? This is where authorial intent and textual structure provide me with some criteria for limiting the scope of possible valid interpretations.
In light of these inappropriate reading techniques, what are some possible approaches to good Bible reading and interpretation which offer a degree of verification and consistency?

III. Possible Approaches to Good Bible Reading

At this point I am not discussing the unique techniques of interpreting specific genres but general hermeneutical principles valid for all types of biblical texts. A good book for genre-specific approaches is How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, published by Zondervan.

My methodology focuses initially on the reader allowing the HolySpirit to illumine the Bible through four personal reading cycles. This makes the Spirit, the text and the reader primary, not secondary. This also protects the reader from being unduly influenced by commentators. I have heard it said: "The Bible throws a lot of light on commentaries.” This is not meant to be a depreciating comment about study aids, but rather a plea for an appropriate timing for their use.
We must be able to support our interpretations from the text itself. Five areas provide at least limited verification:

  1. historical setting
  2. literary context
  3. grammatical structures (syntax)
  4. contemporary word usage
  5. relevant parallel passages
  6. genre

    We need to be able to provide the reasons and logic behind our interpretations. The Bible is our only source for faith and practice. Sadly, Christians often disagree about what it teaches or affirms. The four reading cycles are designed to provide the following interpretive insights:

    1. The first reading cycle
      1. Read the book in a single sitting. Read it again in a different translation, hopefully from a different translation theory
        (1) word-for-word (NKJV, NASB, NRSV)
        (2) dynamic equivalent (TEV, JB)
        (3) paraphrase (Living Bible, Amplified Bible)
      2. Look for the central purpose of the entire writing. Identify its theme.
      3. Isolate (if possible) a literary unit, a chapter, a paragraph or a sentence which clearly expresses this central purpose or theme.
      4. Identify the predominant literary genre
        (1) Old Testament
                a) Hebrew narrative
                b) Hebrew poetry (wisdom literature, psalm)
                c) Hebrew prophecy (prose, poetry)
                d) Law codes
        (2) New Testament
                a) Narratives (Gospels, Acts)
                b) Parables (Gospels)
                c) Letters/epistles
                d) Apocalyptic literature
         
    2. The second reading cycle
      1. Read the entire book again, seeking to identify major topics or subjects.
      2. Outline the major topics and briefly state their contents in a simple statement.
      3. Check your purpose statement and broad outline with study aids.
         
    3. The third reading cycle
      1. Read the entire book again, seeking to identify the historical setting and specific occasion for the writing from the Bible book itself.
      2. List the historical items that are mentioned in the Bible book
        (1) the author
        (2) the date
        (3) the recipients
        (4) the specific reason for writing
        (5) aspects of the cultural setting that relate to the purpose of the writing
        (6) references to historical people and events
      3. Expand your outline to paragraph level for that part of the biblical book you are interpreting. Always identify and outline the literary unit. This may be several chapters or paragraphs. This enables you to follow the original author’s logic and textual design.
      4. Check your historical setting by using study aids.
         
    4. The fourth reading cycle
      1. Read the specific literary unit again in several translations
        (1) word-for-word (NKJV, NASB, NRSV)
        (2) dynamic equivalent (TEV, JB)
        (3) paraphrase (Living Bible, Amplified Bible)
      2. Look for literary or grammatical structures
        (1) repeated phrases, Eph. 1:6,12,14
        (2) repeated grammatical structures, Rom. 8:31
        (3) contrasting concepts
      3. List the following items
        (1) significant terms
        (2) unusual terms
        (3) important grammatical structures
        (4) particularly difficult words, clauses, and sentences
      4. Look for relevant parallel passages
        (1) look for the clearest teaching passage on your subject using a) "systematic theology” books b) reference Bibles c) concordances
        (2) look for a possible paradoxical pair within your subject. Many biblical truths are presented in dialectical pairs; many denominational conflicts come from proof-texting half of a biblical tension. All of the Bible is inspired, and we must seek out its complete message in order to provide a Scriptural balance to our interpretation.
        (3) look for parallels within the same book, same author or same genre; the Bible is its own best interpreter because it has one author, the Spirit.
      5. Use study aids to check your observations of historical setting and occasion
        (1) study Bibles
        (2) Bible encyclopedias, handbooks and dictionaries
        (3) Bible introductions
        (4) Bible commentaries (at this point in your study, allow the believing community, past and present, to aid and correct your personal study.)

IV. Application of Bible Interpretation

At this point we turn to application. You have taken the time to understand the text in its original setting; now you must apply it to your life, your culture. I define biblical authority as "understanding what the original biblical author was saying to his day and applying that truth to our day.”

Application must follow interpretation of the original author’s intent both in time and logic. We cannot apply a Bible passage to our own day until we know what it was saying to its day! A Bible passage should not mean what it never meant!
Your detailed outline, to paragraph level (reading cycle #3), will be your guide. Application should be made at paragraph level, not word level. Words have meaning only in context; clauses have meaning only in context; sentences have meaning only in context. The only inspired person involved in the interpretive process is the original author. We only follow his lead by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. But illumination is not inspiration. To say "thus saith the Lord,” we must abide by the original author’s intent. Application must relate specifically to the general intent of the whole writing, the specific literary unit and paragraph level thought development.

Do not let the issues of our day interpret the Bible; let the Bible speak! This may require us to draw principles from the text. This is valid if the text supports a principle. Unfortunately, many times our principles are just that, "our” principles—not the text’s principles.

In applying the Bible, it is important to remember that (except in prophecy) one and only one meaning is valid for a particular Bible text. That meaning is related to the intent of the original author as he addressed a crisis or need in his day. Many possible applications may be derived from this one meaning. The application will be based on the recipients’ needs but must be related to the original author’s meaning.

V. The Spiritual Aspect of Interpretation

So far I have discussed the logical process involved in interpretation and application. Now let me discuss briefly the spiritual aspect of interpretation. The following checklist has been helpful for me:

  1. Pray for the Spirit’s help (cf. I Cor. 1:26-2:16).
  2. Pray for personal forgiveness and cleansing from known sin (cf. I John 1:9).
  3. Pray for a greater desire to know God (cf. Ps. 19:7-14; 42:1ff.; 119:1ff).
  4. Apply any new insight immediately to your own life.
  5. Remain humble and teachable.

It is so hard to keep the balance between the logical process and the spiritual leadership of the Holy Spirit. The following quotes have helped me balance the two:

  1. from James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting, pp. 17-18:
    "The illumination comes to the minds of God’s people—not just to the spiritual elite. There is no guru class in biblical Christianity, no illuminati, no people through whom all proper interpretation must come. And so, while the Holy Spirit gives special gifts of wisdom, knowledge and spiritual discernment, He does not assign these gifted Christians to be the only authoritative interpreters of His Word. It is up to each of His people to learn, to judge and to discern by reference to the Bible which stands as the authority even to those to whom God has given special abilities. To summarize, the assumption I am making throughout the entire book is that the Bible is God’s true revelation to all humanity, that it is our ultimate authority on all matters about which it speaks, that it is not a total mystery but can be adequately understood by ordinary people in every culture.”
     
  2. on Kierkegaard, found in Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p. 75:
    According to Kierkegaard the grammatical, lexical, and historical study of the Bible was necessary but preliminary to the true reading of the Bible. "To read the Bible as God’s word one must read it with his heart in his mouth, on tip-toe, with eager expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as the Word of God.”
     
  3. H. H. Rowley in The Relevance of the Bible, p. 19:
    "No merely intellectual understanding of the Bible, however complete, can possess all its treasures. It does not despise such understanding, for it is essential to a complete understanding. But it must lead to a spiritual understanding of the spiritual treasures of this book if it is to be complete. And for that spiritual understanding something more than intellectual alertness is necessary. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and the Bible student needs an attitude of spiritual receptivity, an eagerness to find God that he may yield himself to Him, if he is to pass beyond his scientific study unto the richer inheritance of this greatest of all books.”

VI. This Commentary’s Method

The Study Guide Commentary is designed to aid your interpretive procedures in the following ways:

  1. A brief historical outline introduces each book. After you have done "reading cycle #3" check this information.
  2. Contextual insights are found at the beginning of each chapter. This will help you see how the literary unit is structured.
  3. At the beginning of each chapter or major literary unit the paragraph divisions and their descriptive captions are provided from several modern translations:

    a. The United Bible Society Greek text, fourth edition revised (UBS4)
    b. The New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update (NASB)
    c. The New King James Version (NKJV)
    d. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
    e. Today’s English Version (TEV)
    f. The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)

Paragraph divisions are not inspired. They must be ascertained from the context. By comparing several modern translations from differing translation theories and theological perspectives, we are able to analyze the supposed structure of the original author’s thought. Each paragraph has one major truth. This has been called "the topic sentence” or "the central idea of the text.” This unifying thought is the key to proper historical, grammatical interpretation. One should never interpret, preach or teach on less than a paragraph! Also remember that each paragraph is related to its surrounding paragraphs. This is why a paragraph level outline of the entire book is so important. We must be able to follow the logical flow of the subject being addressed by the original inspired author.

  1. Bob’s notes follow a verse-by-verse approach to interpretation. This forces us to follow the original author’s thought. The notes provide information from several areas:
    1. literary context
    2. historical, cultural insights
    3. grammatical information
    4. word studies
    5. relevant parallel passages
  2. At certain points in the commentary, the printed text of the New American Standard Version (1995 update) will be supplemented by the translations of several other modern versions:
    1. The New King James Version (NKJV), which follows the textual manuscripts of the "Textus Receptus.”
    2. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which is a word-for-word revision from the National Council of Churches of the Revised Standard Version.
    3. The Today’s English Version (TEV), which is a dynamic equivalent translation from the American Bible Society.
    4. The Jerusalem Bible (JB), which is an English translation based on a French Catholic dynamic equivalent translation.
  3. For those who do not read Greek, comparing English translations can help in identifying problems in the text:
    1. manuscript variations
    2. alternate word meanings
    3. grammatically difficult texts and structure
    4. ambiguous texts Although the English translations cannot solve these problems, they do target them as places for deeper and more thorough study.
    5. At the close of each chapter relevant discussion questions are provided which attempt to target the major interpretive issues of that chapter.