A while back, I attended a friend’s birthday dinner. Around the table were friends of the celebrant, also Christian churchgoers, who I was meeting for the first time. As I took my seat, I was introduced to the group as a pastor. We exchanged introductory pleasantries and one of them asked this question, “So, are you Bible-based?”
I found it both funny and a little strange at the same time. It immediately felt like a job interview, and the way I answered was going to determine whether I was going to be accepted or not. To make things light and humorous, I answered, “Well, I don’t preach from the tabloids… Yes, I do preach solely from the bible. So, you could say we are Bible-based.”
As I ponder her question which I have gotten many times framed in different ways over my time as a pastor, it comes to me that she really isn’t asking whether I preach from the Bible or not. The underlying question lies in whether my interpretation of the Bible is the same as hers. And perhaps subscribing to the assumption that her interpretation—what she believes about the Bible and what she believes about what it says—is the absolute truth.
We all believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and contains the narrative that reveals to us who God is and how He moves in this world. I do feel that sometimes it gets lost on us that whatever it is we believe the Bible says, is fundamentally an interpretation. These renderings are handed down to us. Someone somewhere, mostly religious scholars of a given time, read these ancient texts and made choices about how we are to understand them. The interpreters were careful and thoughtful, doing their best to figure out what was originally being said. And sometimes, conclusions or adjustments in belief were influenced by the current events at a given time when a specific doctrine is being articulated. There were occasions when the popularity of an idea was driven by the charisma of the leader. And sadly, there were situations when the conclusions were deemed “way-off” by the majority of those who were actively engaged in the science and art exegesis.
These ideas might be new or hard to hear for some, but this has always been widely known in the world of Christian scholarship, specially from those who have endeavored in giving us our modern translations.
Here is the last paragraph of the prefaces from three of the most popular english translators of the Bible in modern times. Check out what they say:
Like all translations of the Bible, made as they are by imperfect man, this one undoubtedly falls short of its goals. Yet we are grateful to God for the extent to which he has enabled us to realize these goals and for the strength he has given us and our colleagues to complete our task. We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made. We pray that it will lead many into a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, of whom the Scriptures so faithfully testify.
We know that no Bible translation is perfect; but we also know that God uses imperfect and inadequate things to his honor and praise. So to our triune God and to his people we offer what we have done, with our prayers that it may prove useful, with gratitude for much help given, and with ongoing wonder that our God should ever have entrusted to us so momentous a task.
As we submit this translation of the Bible for publication, we recognize that any translation of the Scriptures is subject to limitations and imperfections. Anyone who has attempted to communicate the richness of God’s Word into another language will realize it is impossible to make a perfect translation. Recognizing these limitations, we sought God’s guidance and wisdom throughout this project. Now we pray that he will accept our efforts and use this translation for the benefit of the Church and of all people.
So the big question is, if all these assumptions about the text come from interpretations, how then can we know that the things we hold on to are true? Should we just give up altogether because it doesn’t feel like we can arrive at the singular idea everyone can agree on?
Here is where I land as someone who teaches from these texts, and here is where we land as a church community who does their best to live as people of the narrative we call the scriptures: with diligence and discipline of study, a spirit of carefulness and thoughtfulness, a heart that humbly seeks truth and the faith that God’s disposition is to reveal who He is, there is a place where we can make sense of what the ancient texts were saying in the time it was written, and stand in the spirit of what was being said to inform our present lives what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
We take this journey toward the text knowing that it is bigger, richer, and deeper than we can imagine. And that while we don’t have the faculties to fully embrace the enormity of its truth, the quest for truer understanding is worth it. For here is where we get a better understanding of who God is, what He is like and how we are to live in this life.
Here are a list of things to consider in handling the Bible. We call them tools by which we can come to a truer understanding of the scriptures. This list was put together by Jonathan Heppner, a fellow pastor at CS.
The method or process we use to understand what the bible says.
Understanding what the words mean
Are they Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic?
What are the tenses of the words?
Where else do we find those words?
Is it a pun or a word play?
Who wrote this?
Where were they?
Where are they from?
What is their story?
To whom did they write it?
What was their experience?
What else has this person said?
Are there cities or towns we are dealing with?
Existing religious issues?
When we read a passage, what comes before and after this verse?
What is the larger flow of this passage?
What is the larger flow of the book?
Where are we in the passage / book in relationship to that larger flow?