by Roger Hahn
Holiness Today Magazine
Holiness Today Magazine
The Problem We Face Today thousands of Bible studies and Sunday School classes ask their members, "What does this passage mean to you?" Questions like this invite the private interpretation of Scripture forbidden in 2 Peter 1:20. It indicates that we need to rediscover the theological core that guides correct interpretation of the Bible. When biblical illiteracy is as rampant as it is today and the Bible is twisted to support every conceivable pattern of sin and self-centeredness, we need to revive an understanding of the theological core of the Bible. Not only do we need a theological interpretation of Scripture, Church experience also shows that we must live with a tension between different ways of understanding the Bible. Some describe that tension as a polarity between literal and allegorical (or figurative) interpretation. Others say it is a tension between historical and literary interpretations of Scripture. A person might even describe it as a spectrum from too little to too much theology as the guiding principle of interpretation. The truth is that the Bible is both a theological and a historical book.
The Theological Aspects of the Bible The Bible is a theological book. It is not designed to provide us with data about ancient history. Its purpose is to show us the way to heaven, as John Wesley put it. Its function is to reveal "the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation,"³ as Article IV of the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene states. This means we must interpret Scripture from a theological angle. We must put together what the Bible teaches about God, about humankind, about sin, about salvation, about Christ and the Holy Spirit, about the Church, and about the end of time. This requires a constant process of moving from individual passages to the overarching biblical truths. It also requires applying those great truths as we interpret individual passages. This means Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture. Passages where truth is clear are the resources we turn to when we are trying to understand passages where the message seems uncertain. What we learn from those unambiguous passages is the theological core of Scripture, often summarized in the Church's creed and articles of faith. Part of what this theological interpretation of Scripture means is that we interpret Scripture from its center to our concerns. Much of the faulty reading of the Bible arises from people who come to it with their questions and issues of life as the determining factor. When you want to justify a lifestyle, defend a political agenda, or want a guide to personal success, you will fairly easily find scriptures that will say what you want to hear. But when you start with what the Bible says about God, sin, and salvation and work your way from those central truths to their application in your life the outcome is quite different.
The Historical Context of the Scriptures We should also remember that the Bible is a historical book. Its great narrative is set on the stage of human history. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans mentioned in the pages of the Bible are the same people we discover on the pages of ancient history and in the work of archaeologists. At the heart of the New Testament is the truth that the Word became flesh and lived in a real place at a real time dealing with real people. This means the theological truths of Scripture need to be understood and grounded in careful historical study. This balance of theological and historical interpretation of Scripture was first affirmed in the second and third centuries by the rule of faith. This need for a balance of theological and historical study of Scripture points us toward another important truth. There is also a proper balance between private and corporate study and interpretation of the Bible. If we never read or study the Bible privately, we are not likely to seek to conform our life to its teaching. On the other hand, if we only study the Bible privately we rob ourselves of the wisdom of the Church, both in its present rich diversity and in its historical sense of center. The Church has been the primary guardian of the theological core of the Scriptures. However, we will probably not adhere to that core if we do not participate in the corporate interpretation of Scripture through its preaching and teaching in the Church. During the past two hundred years many people have tried to separate the Bible and theology. Some have expressed the separation as a desire for the simple truths of Scripture without the complexity of theology and its arguments. We must reject this appeal to separate the Bible and theology. The two are inextricably intertwined and we can never understand one without the other. Roger L. Hahn is dean of the faculty and professor of New Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City.