- coming to grips with what it means to say that the books of the Bible were not written to me but to people who have been dead for two to three thousand years
- coming to grips with the task of connecting the individual books to each other in one's understanding
- coming to grips with the task of connecting the Bible to today
It has become hard for me to remember how I used to read the Bible before I went to college, seminary, and eventually got a doctorate in New Testament. At some point I underwent a paradigm shift, one that shifted from largely reading the words of the Bible with my own definitions to reading it more on its own terms. You never get perfect at de-tangling yourself from something you're trying to understand, but you can make substantial progress.
There can be a kind of three-stage journey in a Christian's use and understanding of the Bible. The default state is one where you aren't aware of yourself. Let me call this the "mirror-reading" stage of using the Bible. You don't even realize you're mainly looking at yourself when you read the Bible. You bring the dictionary in your head to the words and understandably define the words according to what makes sense to you. You're wearing glasses but don't know it.
At this stage, you probably don't realize that what makes sense to you has everything to do with where and when you were born, who raised you, what culture do you live in. If you grew up in church, then you have all the teaching and preaching that stuck, rattling around in your head. Not that sermons are much more effective in general than lectures--most people probably don't listen to half of what a preacher says. I once heard 10% as an optimistic sense of how much students remember from a lecture.
But you do grow up with a bunch of definitions in your head if you grow up in church. Maybe you heard them around the dinner table or in Sunday School. Maybe it was that one thing in every other sermon that actually stuck with you. We build up a dictionary in our heads for what things mean as we grow up.
I'm going to call the second stage of reading the Bible the "contextual" stage. This is the stage where you realize that the books of the Bible were not written to you. Because we never fully become aware of ourselves--and because of gaps in our knowledge of biblical contexts--we will never be fully able to read the books of the Bible in terms of what they really meant originally to their first readers. We can only do our best.
I'll share more later. Right now I just want to get the overall pattern in view. I'll fill in the details later. There can be a third stage where you can once again read the Bible as God's word to you. I'll call it the "sacramental" stage. This is where you can intuitively, hopefully spiritually, sense the connections between the world of the text and our world. It is a stage where you can experience God through the text, be formed through the text. Optimally, you have this experience while at the same time knowing what the text is and was.
In the following pages, I want to share a bit of my own "hermeneutical" pilgrimage. Hermeneutics is about how to interpret a text. My goal is both to move you toward what I'm calling the sacramental stage and help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can come along the way. No other text involves so much hermeneutical game-playing as the Bible, where we say we are doing one thing while doing another. If we say we are getting all our beliefs and practices from the Bible and have no clue what we're really doing, that can be dangerous...