Saturday, March 11, 2017

Observing the Bible: Two Paths

There are two basic ways to go about observing a text in detail. The first I am going to call a lectio divina way of reading the text, a “divine reading.” To observe a passage in this way I suggest you pray and ask the Lord to give you spiritual eyes to see. Bring with your eyes a knowledge of the character of God and the sound Christian teaching you have learned in the Church. Then read the text with openness to the Spirit. Listen to what he has to say. Savor every word. Chew on it and digest it. Circle, underline, and write notes with a view to hearing and being transformed.

Perhaps this "spiritual observation" approach is the most important way a person could read a biblical text. As you read the text, you see and hear things that you have not seen and heard before. As you submit to God through the text, change takes place in your heart, mind, and life. You have questions that you did not think to ask before, and you have answers that are so much more than ideas.

I believe that God regularly speaks to people in this way and that he does so to people with no training whatsoever in how to read the Bible in context. He meets us where we are, in our "world in front of the text." If you remember from the previous chapter, the "world in front of the text" is my world. I am the one in front of the Bible reading it, and I bring with me all of my assumptions and perspectives on the world. Of course the original meaning of the words of the Bible did not come from my world. The original meanings of the Bible's words came from the worlds of Isaiah, Paul, and John and their languages. The more I am reading the Bible with the "definitions" of my world, the less likely I am reading it exactly the way that Jeremiah or Mark understood their own words.

It is my contention that, as long as I am truly hearing God speak to me, it is okay to read the Bible this way. Otherwise, how many people would actually be able to hear God speak to them in Scripture? Only scholars? On the other hand, how can I know if I am really hearing God or just the burrito I had for breakfast?

I would suggest that we should always read the Bible in communities of faith, so that other people of faith can help me see the eccentricities of my own interpretations. Of course communities of faith can go off in skewed directions as well, which is why it is good for all Christians to be talking to each other. I personally put great stock in the "consensus" of Christianity, matters that the overwhelming majority of Christians have believed for a very long time. These would include the interpretations that we find in the early creeds of Christianity, including beliefs in things like the Trinity, the virgin birth, and God's creation of the universe out of nothing.

However, there is another way to read a biblical text in detail. This is the way I should read the text if I want to hear what it was originally trying to say in the language and categories of its first authors and audiences. Prayer is perfectly appropriate here as well, for God can help me think straight just as well as he can open my spirit. Here I sometimes suggest to students that they pretend that they are an alien from Mars, coming to a biblical text for the first time with no knowledge of Christianity or anything human. They only know the basics of the languages in which the Bible was written.

What sort of questions would they have? When they came across certain key words, they would not have a church background to draw on. They would have to ask, "What does this word righteousness mean?" because they might not have any prior conceptions. When they came across the word "but," they might know that there was a contrast involved, but might ask what exactly was contrasting with what.

The rest of this chapter is about how to do a first read through a biblical text with as open a mind as possible. Some call this exercise "detailed observation." [1] Try not to assume any answers and try not to jump to conclusions. If you were from another planet reading the Bible for the first time, what are the questions you would ask?

This is an inductive approach to the biblical text. It is one step on a journey to induce the meaning of the text from the text. While the spiritual approach comes to the text with a host of theological assumptions, the inductive approach tries to assume nothing. It tries to hear the questions the text itself raises. It is thus focused on the "world within the text." [2]

Again, I believe that both methods are valid and important. The spiritual approach is important because, as Christians, we should start with faith and seek understanding within the context of faith. But the second is significant because it helps keep us honest. It opens the door for the "reformation" of our starting assumptions. It is the most objective method for determining what the text actually meant originally. The rest of the chapter suggests the kinds of things we might look for in a biblical passage and the kinds of questions we might raise to move us toward its original meaning.

[1] Bauer and Traina

[2] Remember that the "world of the text" is just the text itself. We are going to somewhat artificially try to isolate the world of the text from either my world (the world in front of the text) or the historical world of the Bible (the "world behind the text") just to raise questions we might pursue later. This is impossible in reality--we have to define the words in the text from somewhere--but we often learn much in the attempt to read the text itself as if we knew nothing about anything.

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