True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.
Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.
Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.
Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.
In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.
Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:
Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.
Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.
Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”
Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.
Reading the Gospels
In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.
Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.
The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.
C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis
Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.
Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:
The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.
Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.
But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.
Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.
We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.
True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?
The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.
* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.
In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.
I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.
Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.
The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.