Biblical interpretation: 6 rules to keep us grounded

Lord, teach me your laws,
    and I will always follow them.
34 Help me understand your teachings,
    and I will follow them.
    Obeying them will be my greatest desire.
35 Help me follow your commands,
    because that makes me happy.
36 Give me the desire to follow your rules,
    not the desire to get rich.
37 Don’t let me look at worthless things.
    Help me live your way. – Psalm 119:33-37

Yesterday’s post about “interpretation” (On Respecting the Scriptures Enough…) sets up the question of “how?” How do we find meaning and how do we organize our beliefs and how do we come to points of agreement firm enough to find their place in the essential structure of faith?

This is the question I started my class with a couple of weeks ago. “Where have we learned the things we understand as definitively Christian?” So I polled the class and we made a list; it included the following sources:

  • Our parents,
  • Sunday school,
  • Sermons,
  • Hymns, praise songs, and Christmas carols,
  • Reading the Bible and drawing our own conclusions,
  • Random books we have read,
  • Memes that appear online,
  • Conversations with friends,
  • DJs and hosts on radio and television…
  • a lot more….

This is a fairly random assortment of sources for such an important belief system! Additionally, so much of Christianity has become identified with “Western Civilization” and culture that we often don’t know if we’re talking about faith or the culture it has been absorbed into.

In fact, there is a disturbing trend in this country where the expression of Evangelical Christianity has morphed into a kind of religious nationalism, God is wrapped in the American flag, and church has all the trappings of a political rally pushing social conservatism as an article of faith.

IMG_1441All this is by way of pointing out how a study of Christian Doctrine can be a useful discipline that offers a framework for “what we believe” with literally centuries of study, prayer, thought, reformation, review, and re-imagining – something significantly deeper and farther reaching than the cultural milieu we currently inhabit.

My study is being guided by the classic Shirley Guthrie book, Christian Doctrine. Guthrie was one of Rebekah’s professors at Columbia (she graduated in 1982), and he extensively revised the text in 1994.

Guthrie offers six helpful principles for interpretation that come from the heart of the creeds, confessions, and catechisms common to the “reformed” faith. Then, looking even beyond the reformed umbrella, Guthrie seeks a framework that is ecumenical (in the sense that I outlined via the “chili cook-off” analogy in Monday’s post).

  1. Scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose: The purpose of scripture is to help us to know who God is and how to live faithfully in response to that knowledge. The Bible does not intend to be a scientific or historical textbook.
  2. Scripture interprets itself: When we need clarification it is found within scripture. Other passages throw different light and more light. We must listen to the total witness of scripture. Or, as Rebekah likes to ask, “What else does the Bible say?”
  3. The Christological principle: All scripture is to be interpreted in light of what Christ himself did and commanded. The final appeal must always be to the authority of Jesus.
  4. The rule of faith: According to the Scots confession, “We anticipate that the Holy Spirit will enable us to interpret faithfully God’s word for our time and place.” We listen from the context of prayer and devotion and worship and a vital relationship with Jesus.
  5. The rule of love: Love – according to the 2nd Helvetic Confession – is the fundamental expression of God’s will. Jesus is the central story of scripture, and Jesus declared that all the teaching of the law and the prophets is summed up in this: “Love God with all you are and everything you have, and love your neighbor in the same way.”
  6. The study of scripture in its literary and historical context: This is essentially the topic of yesterday’s post. When we value scripture enough to take every effort to understand the nuances of history and context and culture and translation and native tongue and the vast panoply of variables that color the meaning of every phrase… then we are in a better position to understand.

All this – of course – must be engaged from the context of prayer and devotion and faith. We really must respect the scriptures enough to search them with care.

Regardless, my advice is to get into the word, saturate yourself with scripture, allow the wisdom and the love and the story to wash over you. All the while seeking to follow Jesus with grace and discipline and joy.

As the Psalmist wrote: Give me the desire to follow your rules, not the desire to get rich. Don’t let me look at worthless things. Help me live your way.”

– Amen to that – DEREK



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