The Basic Method for Interpreting a Bible Passage

August 15, 2012

In the last several days I have demonstrated an exegetical method on the topic of women in ministry. It is a relevant topic to one GA commissioner, as noted at the beginning of this series, and to the others who may be searching the Scriptures again as they ponder a migration to another branch of the Presbyterian family.

The method generally went like this (though I truncated it somewhat for blog-space purposes):

1. What does the Scripture say—I collected the data from Scripture, in this case using a matrix to sort it by category. For the Bible student who is not familiar with the whole Bible yet, various study helps, a concordance, margin notes, and cross-references in a study Bible, can help secure the chain of evidence from both Old and New Testaments.

2. What do the words mean—Using Hebrew and Greek lexicons, a dictionary, and when necessary, contemporaneous usage dictionaries (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is an excellent example), one can get a three-dimensional look at the meaning of words, the function of grammar, and appreciation of genre.

3. What did the text(s) mean to the original readers or hearers— This is the beginning of contextual analysis, which includes establishing, when we can and using biblical resources, the historical setting, the theological context, and cultural considerations. It is easy to overlook the context of a passage; so to guard against taking things out of context, we pay special attention to what has preceded and what follows a text and its place in the entire book. We also have the luxury of abundant material by Paul, so in Pauline study we look at all his letters as a wider context still. Case in point: My quest to understand what Paul was teaching about women in leadership began in 1978 with the question, “Why did Paul say one thing (“women are to remain silent in the church”) and yet do another (commission Priscilla, Phoebe, and others for ministry)?

4. How far does this text reach—Expanding on the meaning to the original recipients of the text, I also considered the scope of the instruction: where it was directed, the time-frame of application, and the conditions that kept it in place. Regardless of how we feel about the subject, the important question here is how did Paul view the applicability of his teaching? His letters were directed to specific congregations enduring particular difficulties. Sometimes, despite an abiding theological belief (e.g. Gal 3:27-8: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”), he had to show pastoral concern and urge order upon the fellowships in Ephesus and Corinth. It is the whole of his teaching, in different contexts, that help us figure out what is abiding and what is addressing a local concern.

You will note that it was not part of my exegetical method to suddenly leap forward and promote a twenty-first century value upon Paul’s first-century teaching. To illustrate this exegetical disconnect, I recall a conversation my associate had with a parishioner shortly after my arrival as their new senior pastor. The woman said, “Well, I guess we have to keep up with the times, so it’s okay to have a woman pastor.” My associate wisely chimed in, “Ah, Olivia, that is not the right reason to accept the ordination of women. We believe that the church has been slow to affirm what the Scriptures teach on the subject: that both women and men are gifted and called to ministry. Women were affirmed by Jesus himself as messengers of the good news.” I loved that answer. She was saying, “The world’s values have changed, so in order to be relevant, the church has to include women in leadership.” To read that concept back into Scripture would be eisegesis (pouring my meaning into the word), when what we are supposed to practice is exegesis (pulling out of the word what it is saying to us).

5. What principle is teachable—What we do then is weigh all the evidence, and discern the principle lesson meant to carry forward, the point of permanent or universal application. I identified this as Paul’s concern for proper learning and doctrinal maturity; or, until you have proved that you know what you’re talking about, learn quietly and we’ll discuss your teaching role later.

6. How then shall we live—The lessons derived from the passage are then brought forward to us and applied to our lives in the church. On the women’s question (not to mention other questions related to ordination), Presbyterians should put less emphasis on “representation” (that is, inclusion of various “groups,” ready or not) and more on preparation for ministry and instruction in and requirement of sound doctrine. This of course gets us to our denominational conundrum:  what is sound doctrine? Oy.

My first reason for spelling out this method is to set in motion a means for developing a curriculum on marriage. My other purpose in going to this length and detail: using the same method, how do we evaluate the Bible’s teaching on marriage and alternative sexual commitments? My next post . . .


One Response to “The Basic Method for Interpreting a Bible Passage”

  1. carlpelz Says:

    Thank you for these helpful guidelines for interpreting scripture. Though the mechanics of interpretation are straight forward, how does one contend with another factor in the interpretation process, personal bias? Being submissive and obedient to scripture is easier said than done as is allowing the Holy Spirit to bring my ego and accompanying bias to heel! Harkening back to the post on being childlike, Bonhoeffer points out in TCOD that to be childlike is to obey scripture and the Holy Spirit immediately (e.g., “follow me”) without parsing, negotiation, or using reason to interpret scripture to our own liking. Perhaps this explains in part the variety of interpretations for those scriptures that speak to the hot button issues of our day.

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