Historically the Church has understood the nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person of Christ—the Bible is at the same time both human and divine. “The Bible,” it has been correctly said, “is the Word of God given in human words in history.” It is this dual nature of the Bible that demands of us the task of interpretation.
Because the Bible is God’s message, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.
Because it is the word of God, we must listen—and obey.
But because God chose to speak his word through human words in history, every book in the Bible also has historical particularity. . . . Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the “tension” that exists between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.
There are some, of course, who believe that the Bible is merely a human book, and that it contains only human words in history.
For these people the task of interpreting is limited to historical inquiry. Their interest, as with reading Cicero or Milton, is with the religious ideas of the Jews, Jesus, or the early Church. The task for them, therefore, is purely a historical one. What did these words mean to the people who wrote them? What did they think about God? How did they understand themselves?
On the other hand, there are those who think of the Bible only in terms of its eternal relevance.
Because it is the word of God, they tend to think of it only as a collection of propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed—although invariably there is a great deal of picking and choosing among the propositions and imperatives.
There are, for example, Christians who, on the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing”), argue that a woman should not wear slacks or shorts, because these are deemed to be “men’s clothing.” But the same people seldom take literally the other imperatives in this list, which include building a parapet around the roof of one’s house (v. 8), not planting two kinds of seeds in a vineyard (v. 9), and making tassels on the four corners of one’s cloak (v. 12).
The Bible, however, is not a series of propositions and imperatives; it is not simply a collection of “Sayings from Chairman God.”
. . .
Indeed such a book might have made some things easier for us.
But, fortunately, that is not how God chose to speak to us. Rather, he chose to speak his eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history.
This also is what gives us hope.
Precisely because God chose to speak in the context of real human history, we may take courage that these same words will speak again and again in our own “real” history, as they have throughout the history of the church.
The fact that the Bible has a human side is our encouragement; it is also our challenge, and the reason that we need to interpret.
This excerpt is adapted from How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
Explore how to interpret the Bible step by step in this easy-to-understand guide to in-depth Bible study.
The title of this post is the addition of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife.