Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Walt Russell explains how to read the Bible effectively

Below I go over two potss written by Biola University New Testament professor Walt Russell. The material below is almost the same talk he gave for the Stand to Reason Masters Series in Christian Thought. His book on the subject of interpreting the Bible is called “Playing With Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul“. I highly recommend that you read the book, so you know how to read the Bible effectively. But these four articles will teach you most of what you need to know if you don’t want to buy the book.

Here is part one which talks about how postmodern relativism is at odds with discovering the original intent of an author.

Excerpt:

Twenty-four year-old “Janet” (not her real name) was angry at my emphasis on seeking to discover authors’ intentions when we read their texts. She was an evangelical Christian and a second grade teacher in a public school. She prided herself in helping her 20 students learn to love literature. She would read them a story as they gathered around her, and then ask each child, “What does the story mean to you?” She prodded them to come up with their own unique meanings. With such strong encouragement, the class of 20 would eventually have 20 different meanings for the one story. Janet sensed that I was a naysayer about such “love of literature.” Pouring a little emotional gasoline on the fire, I said, “Janet, you’re certainly doing your part to insure that these 7 year-olds will never recover from a radically relativistic view of meaning!” Now I had her full attention.

Here is part two which talks about the importance of knowing the genre of a text before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” — the newspaper headline virtually screams out at you. The thought of something being slain is repulsive. You’re gripped by a mental image of southern India’s Bengal tiger. You imagine its beautiful face, its stripes and piercing eyes. Then your image is shattered by the sudden blast of a high-powered rifle. You see the exquisite creature writhe in pain, fall gracelessly in its tracks and die. Having read no further than the headline, you feel sick, as if you’ve witnessed something tragic.

But should you feel this way? The slaughter of an endangered species — especially one as magnificent as the Bengal tiger — is horrifying, no doubt. But suppose you failed to notice that the headline “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS!” appeared in the sports page of the morning paper. Clearly enough, it now refers to different Indians, different Tigers and a different manner of slaying than you originally thought. And is it really that tragic that the Cleveland Indians badly beat the Detroit Tigers in a major league baseball game last night? Not unless you’re a long-suffering Detroit Tigers’ baseball fan. But how do you now know that the headline is about baseball and not tiger-slaying in India? You look at the words “INDIANS SLAY TIGERS” and you know exactly what each word means. When you combine these words, how can they not mean exactly what you first thought they did — that Indians slay tigers? Answer: because their meanings are communicated (as the meanings of all words are) through genres!

Here is part three which talks about the importance of reading the context of a verse before you try to interpret it.

Excerpt:

“Never Read a Bible Verse!” That’s the title of a little booklet my friend and Christian radio personality, Gregory Koukl, has written to help people read the Bible well. What great advice. “That’s right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph — at least.” But the current is flowing the other way in our popular sound-bite culture. Not to be left out (or left behind!), the Church has its own version of sound-bite culture: verse-bite culture. In verse-bite culture we take a sentence or sentence-fragment from a biblical paragraph, memorize it out of context, write it on a little card, put it on a billboard, a plaque, a rock, etc. Somehow we think that just because this little chunk of Scripture has a verse number in front of it, it was meant to be a free-standing unit of thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Apart from the fact that chapter and verse divisions weren’t added to the New Testament text until 1560 — long after the New Testament’s inspired authorship — there is a more important reason for never reading just a Bible verse, and instead reading at least the paragraph that contains it.

Here is part four which talks about the importance of applying the words of the Bible to your life.

One verse that is often misinterpreted is missing from the articles, but present in the STR lecture. It’s Philippians 1:6 that says “6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. Russell says in the lecture that this promise is specifically intended for the church in Philippi, to whom Paul is writing, not necessarily to all Christians. He is giving them a promise just after directly referring to their good work in supporting him in his ministry. Some verses are just not meant for us, and the context reveals it.

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13 Responses

  1. Good articles. I have read them before on Boundless, which I try to keep up with (even though I am no longer a single college student).

  2. lotharson says:

    I do appreciate Russell’s sophistication in reading the Bible. The next step would be recognizing that genocide is always wrong :-)

    • That’s only possible if you believe in God though, since he is the only ground for the objective morality that is *required* in order to make moral judgments. An atheist cannot ground the view that genocide is morally wrong.

  3. Rachael says:

    this is why i stopped going to bible study. every one i went to would ask “what does this mean to you?” I would say i don’t care what it means to mean, i care what the writer meant it to mean… and everyone looks at my like i’m crazy.

    • Oh dear. That happens to me too!

    • Rachel P. says:

      It’s good that you were standing up for understanding the text as it was originally meant to be understood, not some reading like “you can read it and interpret it according to your background and find your own meaning.” Standing up for truth is what is most loving to God, not finding your own meaning or path.

      In my own experience, which is mostly with teens and 20-ish aged people, people try to focus on socializing and usually one chapter out of the Bible. It seems the focus in many churches is to try to keep it light hearted and encouraging, but this doesn’t prepare and mature people at all for the battle everyone faces, against the world, the flesh, and the enemy. I hope you find someone who you can study together with, so you can grow and then help others to grow too by sharing things that you have already learned about (based on truth of course). :)

    • WorldGoneCrazy says:

      Rachael, we call that game “Pass the trash.” :-)

  4. Rachel P. says:

    About the part talking about “Never read a Bible verse” I agree, it is so important to know the context of the situation. A thing I see happen quite a lot in modern Christianity is that people will quote or magnify the verses about God’s promises and blessings, yet not understand or discuss the obligations that come along with it.

    The study method I use is I read through the whole Bible once or twice a year for familiarity (using a schedule helps me keep on track) and I also spend an hour or a few hours in a discussion with others or by myself to analyze a specific part in the Bible I don’t understand. (I need to get better at doing that part more regularly) I also pray for the Lord’s help, because He’s the one who helps open our eyes to understand. This works really well for me, I wrote it here in case anyone else might be helped by the idea. Also, listening to the Bible on audio really helps to have more time to read, because you can listen while cleaning, driving, ect. I listen to the Bible on audio quite a lot, every day probably.

  5. Todd Flanders says:

    A great read. Someone got me this on audo tape many years ago. I remember that it was someone very important. Ever since I listened to this book-on-tape, I got in the habit of reading the front-matter of books. This is where you get the author’s motivation for creating the work. It was a paradigm shift for me to go from “how is this book going to help me?” to “what does the author want me understand?”.

    • Wow, is it the same generous person you mentioned in your last comment? I’m sure this important person would like you to send him your amazon wishlist, since you seem to be very good at growing from the things he sends you.

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