Saturday, 3 March 2018

Book Review: Ian Paul, How to Interpret the Bible

Ian Paul, How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2017)

I am grateful to Grove Books for a review copy.

In at least one respect, the Bible is just like any other work of literature: it needs to be interpreted, and Scripture’s status as God’s Word written does not alter this fact. But how should we go about doing the act of interpretation? In this instructive Grove Book, Ian Paul (of the Psephizo blog) contends that readers of Scripture need to ask four essential questions when coming to the biblical text:

What did it mean given it is written in this way?
What did the text mean then, to its writer and first readers?
What does this text actually say?
What does this text mean here, in this part of the story of Scripture? (pp. 7, 10, 14, 19, emphasis original)

The first question concerns genre, ‘the mechanism by which authors instruct readers how to make sense of what they have written’; genre recognition is thus ‘the literary equivalent of empathy’ (p. 7). Discerning the genre of a text is by no means always easy, but it is important to do so as accurately as possible lest its message and meaning be misconstrued. This is the error of those who treat Genesis 1 as a science textbook or the book of Revelation as ‘an “end-times timetable” for the distant future’ (p. 8).

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The second question builds on the first by addressing the matter of context. Many biblical passages are illuminated by understanding the situation in which they were (thought to have been) written. Paul points to how knowledge of the region of Laodicea elucidates the ‘neither cold nor hot’ of Revelation 3:15-16: the hot springs of nearby Hierapolis brought healing and the cold springs of Colossae helped refresh; but the tepid waters of Laodicea were good for neither of these things. By comparing the Laodicean believers to lukewarm water, the risen Christ is berating them for not being effective. The point is perhaps not dependent on in-depth knowledge of Laodicea’s infrastructure, but it certainly helps to make sense of the imagery and drive the message home.

Thirdly, it is important to avoid confirmation bias by attending to the actual words used in Scripture. It is easy to read into the Bible something that it does not say, either because we have been shaped by particular traditions, or because we have already arrived at a firm conclusion about something and so cannot entertain the possibility of alternative—and perhaps more accurate—readings. Among the examples Paul uses to elaborate this point are Matthew 24:40-41 (on the rapture) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (on women learning in silence).

Finally, reading a particular text in the context of the whole Bible helps to discern its place in the bigger picture. This acknowledges that the biblical authors themselves had their own scriptures (which is why we see allusions to and quotations from earlier texts throughout both testaments), and that the compilers of the Old and New Testament canons recognised some kind of ‘common voice’ (p. 20) among the disparate texts. Identifying the place of an individual passage within its wider canonical context ‘deepens our understanding and can transform our interpretation’ (p. 20).

Ideally, the four questions Paul asks should all work together to make provisional but definite sense of the biblical text:

Having considered what kind of writing this is, what it meant in its context, having attended carefully to what it actually says (and not what we hope or assume it says), and noting where it comes in the story of the whole of Scripture, we then commit ourselves to the meaning that we find, and live in the light of it. This will never give us absolute certainty . . . but it will give us confidence in the meaning of the text—a confidence that is settled, and yet open to correction when we come to read this text again in the future. Both confidence and openness are necessary in the faithful reading of Scripture. (p. 23, emphasis original)

How to Interpret the Bible originated as a series of New Wine North presentations and Psephizo blog posts, and so has already seen some dissemination. However, the material in this form is particularly ideal for a Grove Book and, due largely to Paul’s customary clarity and insight, is highly suitable for anyone who suspects there is more to biblical interpretation than reading it ‘simply’ or ‘plainly’. Most chapters conclude with ‘questions for reflection’, suggesting that the material could be adapted for use in a study/home group context. This is a worthy addition to the bookshelves and is available here.

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