The Challenge of Interpretation

Towards the tail end of the year I had a series of highly stimulating conversations with a friend of mine. They covered a lot of ground but they all revolved around the question of whether Jesus is the prophesied messiah of the scriptures. I learnt a lot from him and he replied likewise. Just reflecting on the dialogue has been very instructive for me, not just what was said but the way it was said. He is one of the few people I have personally met whose powers of recall of the Bible are better than myself. We gleefully flitted all over the Old Testament in our discussions. To talk with someone who knows his stuff is really enjoyable. Since our talks, I have gained a great respect for his broad knowledge of scripture and Judaism, as well as his keen mind and intellectual candour. He had had some of the same conversations with others, some of whom I knew. He told me I was able to give him the most compelling response that far.

Now the point he made about the strength of my response really interested me. In the moment it felt really good that I could give a proper account of myself before such an erudite interrogator. His other interlocutors were also people who are very familiar with the scriptures. Some of them are young pastors, some have academic training in theology but mostly they were people we would call in the Ghanaian charismatic context ‘spiritual.’ These are young people who are passionate for God, very pious, consume a lot of sermon material, study scripture voraciously, who their peers look to for insight and biblical teaching. They are young charismatic leaders and influencers. These are the crop from who we get the next generation of Pentecostal/Charismatic leaders. They are the crème de la crème.  So why did what I have to say challenge some one like them so much?

It would be nice to think my own brilliance is the reason, that I am the smartest guy in the young charismatic room but that cannot possibly be true. My dialogue partner for instance was demonstrably more intelligent than myself. Those other guys had the about the same knowledge of scripture to ours and some had the advantage of seminary training. A lot of my stuff was not original. Since I really have no intellectual advantage, it is best to look at the approach.

I tackled the issue from mostly a hermeneutical stand point. Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation. In our conversation one of the first things I did was define the Bible and from that how to read it before getting into the specifics of interpreting particular passages. I identified scripture as a historical metanarrative. A large, multilinear, tortuous, overarching story that runs through history. As followers of this blog would know, that approach is hardly new and others have done it long before myself. By reflecting on this feature of my delivery I began to notice something within that conversation and in other settings.

When I look at the vibrant church world in modern Ghana, most of the most biblically literate young people out there do not actually get the Bible. I know this is a bold claim but hear me out. In the conversations I was having with my dialogue partner he knew many relevant passages well and had a good grasp of them, but there was no underlying connective tissue of how they all worked together. In his interpretations each scripture was doing its own thing and was grouped with other scriptures doing similar things. This did not necessarily make his interpretations wrong. Many, if not the majority, of them were insightful. My problem with him was not so much the individual interpretations but why and how he chose to interpret in those particular ways. Going that way you end up with a fragmented picture of scripture. Ironically, the dissatisfaction he had with other responses helped show me he had similar shortcoming with them. They all knew multiple, if not all,  parts of the Bible yet they couldn’t actually tell you what it was i.e. what made the Bible the Bible.

To give another example of this problem let me tell you about another dialogue, this time between a close friend and mutual acquaintance. It was on a social media group about Bible related stuff filled with the spiritual types I earlier mentioned. So this friend of mine sent me a bit of their group conversation to see what I thought of it. To be honest a lot of it was hilariously wrong. Our mutual acquaintance proffered a “reve” about the meaning of a very important theological word in the New Testament. My friend raised a penetrating critique in the nonchalant manner he likes to do. He then offers an alternative explanation. Our would-be revelator rather quickly dismissed my friend’s submission as uncertain “stories.” Now when he said that, he was aiming to be pejorative but he did accurately describe what my friend was doing. He was trying to weave a narrative from Genesis to Christ. You see narrative was not a conceptual category he could possibly imagine being used for understanding Scripture. He did not and could not think of scripture as one big story. If my memory serves me right, he directly rejected that view later on. Mind you this person is a prominent young member of a popular, albeit controversial, youth oriented church in the city. One of their hallmarks is meticulously studying scripture. They produce copious amount of notes the size of lecture handouts from church sermons alone.

I am not mentioning this to shame him, even though I think his reasoning was pretty lax. My first example had a robust thinker but I have put them in the same hole. I am bringing it up to show cleverness or ‘spirituality’ is not the deciding factor in understanding the Bible as a whole. At the heart of this is a hermeneutical question: what is the Bible?

Literally speaking the Bible is a canon, a collection of books. Traditional defences of canonicity (what books should be in the Bible) are good and very helpful but they do not go far enough. It was not all written by one guy. Many different people, across multiple genres, in different continents, in different centuries wrote them so why do we think they all belong together in such a way that we should see them as related? That is the primary question of canonicity, what texts and why should we consider as authoritative to the people of God to the exclusion of others? What makes these texts so different from others that we should privilege them?

The Scriptures contain a metanarrative, a story about many stories. Story is important because it is a universal human category. We all live by our implicit narratives. Narrative is a fundamental part of our worldviews. As many propose, and I wholeheartedly agree with them, narrative is actually the Rosetta stone for unlocking Scripture and biblical theology. Dr Michael Goheen, c0-author of The Drama of Scripture: Finding our Place in the Biblical Story, offers a brief yet very helpful explanation of how to see scripture as narrative which you can find here. In it he recounts a very powerful insight from a very unlikely place that encapsulates what makes the Bible so very different in a world full of stories.

[1]After some time living in India, the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin of blessed memory, was challenged by a well-educated Hindu friend, who said to him,

[2]I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion — and anyway we have plenty of books on religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it.

[3]Newbigin realized his friend was right. This was a turning point in Newbigin’s understanding of the Bible, and in turn, his understanding of mission. From there on he presented the Bible as one story that offers a unique account of history and “enables us to understand our own lives as part of that story.” It isn’t just about a convenient little interpretative scheme. It tells the story of God through the story of humanity. It has profound implications for how we live in the world as believers.

Armed with the hermeneutic of the historical metanarrative I made my case for Jesus’ unique messiahship with my dialogist. I said that the gospels are a particular way of reading previous events, that is, the mainly the Old Testament narrative (and to a lesser extent the intertestamental interlude), in the light of the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. The rest of the New Testament is the fall out of the gospel event and early believers trying to make sense of it in their lives. I therefore placed Jesus right in the middle of the Old and New, as the only one who can meaningfully connect both halves of the story truthfully in himself. New Testament scholar Dr Michael Bird sums it up brilliantly this way,

[4]The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Yeshua the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Romans 15:8–9).

Our discussion rightly went all over the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms because the Nazarene is the chief contender. He is the only whose Messianic movement outlived his demise and has gone on to enduring global success in spite of so many obstacles. No one else comes close. So does Jesus lay rightful claim to all of Holy Scripture? This is manifestly a hermeneutical question. As the title of Bird’s book suggests, that was the question being asked and addressed throughout the gospels whose answer the rest of the New Testament hinges on. Is Jesus of Nazareth the one who was promised? The Christian Bible emphatically answers “yes.” This of course does not automatically mean it is true but it means we need to carefully examine why the New Testament authors came to such a confident yet extraordinary conclusion.

[5]Those who study the second Temple period of Judaism show us that the Jewish people inhabited the scriptural narratives. They were expecting feverishly the dramatic fulfilment of the long story of God and his people even though they were not exactly sure how it would turn out. They were immersed in the story from birth so unlike us it was easy for them to see the overarching narrative. The difference with the early Jesus’ movement is that they had seen a truly unexpected climax in the crucified Nazarene. Now the Bible is a very diverse compendium of ancient literature of Jewish heritage. If we cannot see the Christocentric through line in the scriptures we will entirely miss what the Bible is ultimately about. The category of narrative provides us, as it did the first believers, the tools for figuring out this dizzying array of texts.

I am not saying having the right hermeneutical model which solves every problem of reading scripture. We all interpret scripture badly at one point or another. That I do not have so much of a problem with. Communal dialogue and debate, self-scrutiny and the humility to admit when you are wrong, are enough to tackle that occupational hazard of reading Holy Writ. I also do not think any interpretation is the final word on a text, after all, if scripture is a narrative you can never exhaust a story. Each generation keeps coming back to it with fresh insights along with the old. The other problem I have is not having a consistent hermeneutic because it breeds interpretive indiscipline. There is no overall structure to how you interpret the Bible so you can do whatever you want with it, never mind what it is actually saying. You cherry pick verses to suit your position, ignore context, and inconsistently interpret texts. You end up doing great violence to it.

Applying the right hermeneutic does not also mean we read the Bible monochromatically. We adjust for its rich diversity and pay attention to its underlying meta-structure. The Bible is like a jigsaw puzzle. We see all the multiple pieces but unfortunately fail to recognize they all fit together in one picture. Not every piece of the puzzle is congruent with another. They do not all directly relate to one another but they all belong in one frame. To extend the puzzle metaphor a bit more, the best way to solve a complex jigsaw puzzle is not to start with the inside pieces. It’s best to look for the outsides pieces that form the frame of the entire puzzle, piece them together and work your way in. This is not to say if you find some inside pieces that belong together you should not match them up, but you should always have the larger framework as a guide. I think this is true of the Bible. We need to pay attention to the controlling narrative while making sense of scriptural passages. As Glenn Paauw would say, we need to macroread and microread the text.

In summary, whether you agree with the narrative approach or not you need to ask yourself fundamental questions of the text. I see the ignorance of hermeneutics as the biggest challenge to biblical literacy. We cannot own Bibles without knowing what it actually is, what it is about. Studying it does not only mean knowing its content but the book itself for its own sake. We need to know how it is put together, how it works. We cannot take it for granted. We shouldn’t open its pages without first asking, what is the right way to read it?

[1] Tom Høiland, Lesslie Newbigin on the Bible’s Unique Interpretation of History, January 2017.

[2] Newbigin L., 1999, A Walk Through the Bible, Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 4.

[3] Tom Høiland, Lesslie Newbigin on the Bible’s Unique Interpretation of History, January 2017.

[4] Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, Baker, 2009, 163.

[5] See N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.


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