Cara Dillon Runyan

How to know what the Bible says and means (instead of assuming it)

“This is just a book. I’ve read plenty of books—I can read this book.” 

That’s what I told myself the first time I decided to read the Bible. I wanted to move beyond hearing someone else quote it to me or reference stories I heard in Sunday school. I wanted to read it for myself. 

I was both wrong and right—I could read it, but it’s not just a book like any other—and not just because I believe it was inspired. 

We don’t have to pretend; the Bible is difficult to understand. If you don’t think that, you might have a little too much faith in your own understanding. 

I don’t know anyone who has picked up Shakespeare or The Canterbury Tales or Animal Farm or anything else we were forced to (or, in my husband’s case, supposed to) read in high school. That’s because without understanding and learning about the historical setting of these works, they doesn’t make sense. Or, without having someone guide you through the challenging and unfamiliar language, they’re almost impossible to understand. 

I’ve heard pastors preach that anyone can understand the Bible, and I believe that’s true—with a catch. Yes, anyone can read and understand the gospel. There’s no super-spiritual quality about other people that makes them more likely to understand the Bible than you. But there’s a reason why some places, like the accounts about Jesus’ life, might be a better place to start reading than others; it’s because not all scripture is easy to understand. Even those accounts can have some pitfalls—like the fact that the word “stoned” has taken on a dramatically different meaning in our culture than the biblical one. We can’t let our assumptions be our primary guide. 

The original texts of the Bible span thousands of years and a couple different languages. Its stories and accounts were originally written to people with languages, cultures, customs, governments, and social statuses different than our own—in a geography literally half a world away. Its texts also span across literary genres—from poetry to letters, proverbs and apocalypse. Unfortunately, as a result, there’s no “one-size fits all” rule to understanding it all.  

Especially in times like these—as verses are slung back and forth between opposing groups—there’s never been a better time to humble ourselves before the text and ask, “What truth do you have for me here, God—and how might I be getting in the way of hearing it?” 

Here’s what I think is the best way to submit ourselves to understanding scripture, instead of just interpreting it as we want it to read: 

Follow the “rule” of original intent

There’s a doodle circulating around the internet that speaks to this weird place we’re in about truth and perspective. It’s two people standing on either side of the number 6, so one person perceives it to be a number 6, while the other person clearly sees it as a number 9 from their opposing vantage point. The caption says, “Just because you are right doesn’t mean I am wrong. You just haven’t seen life from my side.” Legitimate idea, right? Sort of.

Every person’s perspective affects how he or she understands and interprets things—especially scripture—but does that mean neither person is right or wrong? 

Because the internet is a great place, someone has made another doodle, exactly the same, but crossed out the caption and wrote this instead: “But one of those people is wrong; someone painted a six or a nine. They need to back up and orient themselves, see if there are any other numbers to align with. Maybe there’s a driveway or a building to face…No one wants to do any research, they just want to be right.” This may not mean someone is exactly right or exactly wrong, but we can be confident with some more research that one of these doodle people is more right or less right, at least. 

We’re at a crisis point in our discussions in society because we’ve had a breakdown of the rules of fact and opinion. Most often, this means that ideas about truth are actually feelings about those facts. “Truth” becomes “an idea I like best.” This type of bible interpretation sounds like this, “I feel like this verse is saying…” or “I feel like this passage is saying…” or “What this verse means to me is…” That’s the opposite of what we want to do with the Bible if we intend to submit our lives to it, as opposed to shaping our understanding by our feelings and assumptions.  

Instead, like the revision of the doodle, we can do research and then submit our interpretations to this belief, “There was someone who originally wrote this text and had an intention for how they wanted it to be understood. There may be a lot of perspectives and interpretations, so I will do research to help me figure out which interpretation is likely closest to the author’s original intention.”

Ask the right questions

Scripture is more often used to try and find answers to our personal questions—who should I marry, what job should I do, and where should I live? The Bible wasn’t written as a roadmap for your life, though. If we focus on the rule of looking for the author’s intent to his original audience, we recognize that the text won’t give us answers to our modern day particulars. It was written for your benefit, but not directly to you. Through its accounts, though, we can learn principles that will guide our personal choices.

Here are some more helpful questions to ask of a passage in the Bible:

  • Who was the original audience? What did their life look like? How was it similar to or different from my life circumstances? 
  • Is this passage descriptive, telling the audience what happened, or prescriptive, telling the reader to behave in a certain way? What language clues indicate one or the other?
  • What does this passage tell me about God’s character? 
  • What does this passage have to say about what a life with God looks like?

Recognize your own assumptions

Some assumptions that we bring to scripture are good. We assume its accuracy and its authority. Those assumptions help us take the text seriously and shape our lives around its words. There’s one assumption you can’t make of the text, though. You can’t assume it will always agree with you.

Our assumptions—beliefs about ourselves, God, and the world—are not always fueled by their logic or accuracy. More often, they’re fueled by past teaching, personal experience, or feelings. If the Bible never disagrees with you, makes you angry, or makes you uncomfortable, you might be assuming more than you are understanding. Feelings are real, but they might not be true. To disrupt these assumptions, we have to question our basic understanding of what the test is telling us.

Try asking yourself,

  • “Why does this text illicit an emotional response from me?”
  • “What does this text describe as the greatest good or most important thing in life?”
  • “Who is this text telling me God loves and why?”

Put in the work

The greatest gift of my education was not that it gave me all the answers about the Bible—instead, it taught me how and why to research. I know there will always before more to know and this fostered reverence and humility towards my interpretation of the Bible. It also made me certain of two things: God is knowable through his word and I will only ever scratch the surface of what I can know. What a gift—to know boredom will never be ahead of me if I maintain wonder and wrestling towards his word. That means there’s lots of work to do and it must be careful work if we want to understand who God really is–that’s the ultimate goal of scripture. Don’t assume your first reaction to a verse is accurate or that way you’ve always be taught it was initially correct either. Be willing to put in your own work to learn more. 

Know about your teachers

What are their assumptions? What are their backgrounds? How might that influence their interpretation? What work have they put in? I love learning from people with all sorts of backgrounds because I believe their different perspectives enhance my understanding of the text, bringing out aspects of it that I wouldn’t have seen on my own. But I also research their assumptions—like if they assume the events of the Bible never happened or that Jesus wasn’t actually divine. Likewise, I also consider the personal leanings of teachers—their historical environments, political leanings, and geographical location—and ask, “How have their life experiences influenced the way they see this text?” This doesn’t mean we need to discredit teachers if our backgrounds are different or if we disagree with them; it only helps us weigh their reasoning and the emphases of their interpretations. 

None of this is as easy as reading the the Bible and then choosing to believe that you already assumed it means. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the wrestling. In the same way Jacob wrestled with God, even though it wounded him, he was blessed because of it. We can work hard to know God more—to know him more deeply by understanding his Word more accurately. We don’t have to be intimidated by the Bible and what it requires of us. Instead, we can decide to enjoy its depths, to appreciate its layers and the learning that’s ahead of us. 

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