Reading the Bible Better: Developing a Strategy for Interpreting Scripture

lightFor the four years that I worked on my dissertation, it was my daily effort to read the Bible well. (N.B. This same priority continues to motivate my preaching and writing today too). While my dissertation defended definite atonement, it’s underlying premise was that a better strategy for reading the Bible would produce a more “biblical” doctrine. You’ll have to tell me if my reading is convincing, but the principle is sound—sound doctrine comes from sound exegesis. And sound exegesis comes from sound practices of reading.

Which raises the question: What are sound practices of reading?

Under the illumination of the Spirit, the task of interpretation is hard work. It requires diligent consideration of the biblical text and a willingness to labor to find the shape of the text. Learning the tools (what you might call “reading strategies”) is a vital part of pastoral ministry and should be something all Christians should be willing to grow.

For my part, when I find someone who reads Scripture well, I take note, and when I find those strategies well explained for others to imitate I am doubly encouraged. Such is the kind of approach I found in Ernst Wendland’s 1996 JETS article.

Focusing his attention on the challenge of interpreting Jonah, Wendland, a well-established biblical scholar, has a concise section on how to interpret the Bible. While the language is technical (sorry), his approach is solid and worth the read—especially if you are a pastor or teacher of the Bible.

In sum, he makes three points.

  1. Readers must learn to read Scripture on its own terms: a biblical text must be allowed to speak for itself in terms of genre, truth, and authority.
  2. Readers must learn to read passage in their literary, historical, and canonical context.
  3. Readers must learn to see the forest and the trees, even the bark. For tree bark can only be properly identified when it is placed in its proper ecosystem.

In full, Wendland (“Text Analysis and the Genre of Jonah [Part 1],” (JETS 39.2 [June 1996]: 199), writes,

  1. A given Biblical composition must first be allowed to speak for itself in terms of genre (the nature and purpose of the discourse along with any special hermeneutical expectations that are associated with it, e.g. on the issue of historicity), truth (what the text itself explicitly or implicitly claims [or does not claim] to say) and authority (how seriously any receptor, ancient or modern, is encouraged to regard its expressed or implied imperatives and/or prohibitions). What “generic signals,”23 for example, are found in the book of Jonah to indicate its essentially factive as opposed to fictive character? How did the original author more specifically mark the text to suggest how he intended for it to be interpreted—that is, having both a literal historical as well as a prophetic typological (an implicit analogical) level of significance? Closely related to the preceding is the matter of how the work under consideration is to be construed with respect to its internal setting. As far as Jonah is concerned, “canonical context and the reference to 2 Kings [14:25] both suggest that no matter when the story may have been written, we need to understand it in the context of the ancient Near Eastern world of the eighth century BC, when Assyria was the rising power and Nineveh was a great world city.”[1]
  1. No passage, or even a complete book, of Scripture is an island unto itself. It cannot be adequately treated in isolation. Rather, the hermeneutical task will be influenced to varying degrees (depending on the text itself ) by both the textual cotext and also the situational context. The former deals with the crucial issue of intertextuality with respect to related texts of a Biblical as well as an extra-Biblical nature, whether sacred or secular. This would include the consideration of a given book’s canonical placement in the Hebrew textual tradition.[2] Primary emphasis will of course be placed on literary relationships (in terms of quotation, paraphrase or allusion) of an antecedent type—that is, relating to works that were presumably composed (or extant) earlier in time. But the factor of subsequent citation within the full canon (including the NT) cannot be entirely discounted, especially where certain controversial aspects of interpretation are concerned. Context then refers to the total extratextual milieu in which a book was first composed, conveyed and responded to. This encompasses such influential variables as the initial medium of transmission (oral and/or written), the historical era, the ecological environment, and the sociocultural (political, economic, educational, artistic, religious) setting. All of these factors, independently and in conjunction with one another, influence the accuracy of the exegetical process for better or for worse, depending upon the quality and quantity of information at one’s disposal and how it is handled by the analyst.
  1. A given textual examination must be carried out on the macro- as well as the micro-levels of discourse organization, both independently and also in relation to one another (the Gestalt principle). The macro-analysis will normally begin with a study of the generic features of a given composition, whether in its entirety or with respect to any incorporated subgenres. It will proceed from top to bottom (i.e. from larger to smaller textual units) with an investigation of four principal aspects of the discourse as manifested by various types of phonological, lexical and morphosyntactic repetition: its demarcation (how the text is segmented and integrated into a hierarchy of included and including portions); its connectivity (how the text is made to cohere semantically and also to exhibit formal cohesion); its points or areas of projection (foregrounding and prominence—whether thematic [focus/ peak] or emotive [emphasis/climax]); and its patterning (how the text is constructed in terms of larger parallel, terraced, chiastic or other artistic arrangements of a broad syntagmatic or paradigmatic nature).The existence and credibility of these macro-structures must be confirmed and/or corrected by a corresponding study of prominent stylistic features on the micro-level of the text. This is especially evident at points of convergence, where poetic devices such as rhetorical question, exclamation, hyperbole, figurative language, reiteration, unit expansion, contraction, intensification, temporal displacement, syntactic movement or any other sort of unusual/unexpected construction are concentrated to highlight a boundary, peak or compositional pattern of some kind. Such quantitative or qualitative deviation from either inter- or intra-textual norms is likely to have a special thematic or pragmatic (functional) significance in relation to the overall synchronic or diachronic development of the work as a whole. Through these means an author indicates which information he considers to be especially important within a text even as he also guides his listeners/ readers along the path of a desired interpretation of its meaning and significance.[3]

You can find the whole article here; part 2 which moves from method to the interpretation of Jonah here.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1]J. Limburg, Jonah (OTL; Louisville: John Knox/Westminster, 1993).

[2]On this particular issue see Sasson, Jonah 13–15, and esp. Limburg, Jonah 19–22.

[3]For another perspective on how to determine the author-intended signi˜cance of a given text see Bergen, “Discourse Criticism” 331–334.

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