in Hermeneutics

How I Understand the Bible

(1) Rooted, as I am, within the Christian tradition, I believe that it is best to understand the Bible as a partial but privileged witness to the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular.
(1.1) I use the the term partial here because the Bible is not an exhaustive account of all the ways in which God’s life-giving engagement occurs.  Indeed, the Bible itself frequently suggests that there are many other unknown ways in which God is engaging the world.  For example, in the Old Testament, we meet mysterious characters like Melchizedek, or we hear of God’s plans and involvement with nations and peoples outside of Israel.  Thus, the Bible only accounts for one particular trajectory within God’s life-giving interactions with us.
(1.2) However, within the Christian tradition, this is a privileged trajectory — hence my use of that term here.  For Christians, the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation culminates in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Thus, the Bible is a Christocentric text, bearing witness to God in Jesus Christ.  This is not to say that every single text within the Bible must be taken as referring to Jesus; rather, it is to assert that the general trajectory of the Bible, prior to Jesus’ coming, points forward to him, and that the general trajectory of the Bible, after Jesus’ coming, refers back to him.
(1.3) Thus, as a partial and privileged witness the Bible is understood as a text that reveals something beyond itself — God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular.  Therefore, Christians treat the Bible as a sacred text, not because the text itself is sacred (or infallible, for that matter), but because the text points beyond itself to the revelation of the God of Life.  As Karl Barth has said, the Bible is not the Word of God, but a witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.
(1.4) I should also explicate what I mean by speaking of the history of God’s life-giving engagement with the world.  Essentially, I am asserting that God understood as the God of Life, is the central thread running through the entire biblical narrative and all its disparate parts.  Thus, God is first presented as the Creator of all other forms of life — plants, animals, and humans who are formed from the dust of the earth — the Sustainer of all life — causing the sun to rise and the rain to fall — and the Renewer of life — ultimately even restoring life to the dead in the new creation of all things.  All of these things are things that God does in relation to creation in general, and humanity in particular.  Thus, the Bible is neither an anthropocentric text, nor is it a text that treats humans the same as all other creatures.  Rather, while not denying all of the ways in which God engages the cosmos, it focuses upon God’s interaction with us because this is what we need to know in order to live within creation.  Or, as C. S. Lewis might say, this is ‘our story’, but that we have this story does not mean that there are several other stories being told alongside of it.
(2) However, lest we become confused and reduce this notion to some sort of ‘cosmology of life’, spanning from creation to new creation, I must emphasise that, within biblical history, God’s life-giving engagement with us is primarily revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peace.
(2.1) Therefore, it is essential for us to realise that there is a fundamental conflict occurring within biblical history.  The God of Life is constantly waging war on Death, and all the ways Death finds expression within creation and within our common life together.  Of course, by speaking of this fundamental conflict, I am not seeking to restore some sort of dualism, as though Life and Death, good and evil, or light and darkness, are locked into some sort of eternal struggle.  Rather, Death has entered into creation as an alien intrusion and will one day be done away with.  The God of Life is Sovereign and has conquered Death on the cross of Jesus, and will one day completely abolish Death and its reign.
(2.2) However, until the day of Death’s total abolition, Death still operates within history through the forces of sin (which is that which brings death into the world; i.e. sin is anything that is death-dealing): notably, bondage, sickness, division, and violence.  Consequently, God is understood as the great Liberator — bringing about such events as the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt — as the great Healer — offering sight to the blind, wholeness to the broken, and new life to the dead — and as the Reconciler and Peacemaker — restoring humanity to relationship with God, restoring the socially marginalised into the community of abundant life, and bringing together various nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and members of diverse social locations into the form of fellowship that Robert Jewett has described as ‘agapaic-communalism’.
(3) Therefore, given what I have said thus far, we may also understand the Bible as a text possessing coherence, contradictions, and cultural conditioning.
(3.1) We can speak of coherence within the Bible, because the broad theme of God’s life-giving engagement, which is focused upon Jesus of Nazareth, and regularly revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in conflict with Death and its lackeys,  can be traced throughout the various biblical texts.
(3.2) However, we can also speak of contradictions and cultural conditioning within the Bible because this history of God’s life-giving engagement with us, is a history recorded by particular authors (and editors), from particular places, at particular moments.  These authors are not infallible voices, but they do their best to understand what God is doing, and what this means for them, even as they impart certain other culturally conditioned paradigms onto God and their experiences of God.  Thus, we should not be afraid to acknowledge that certain voices within the Bible stand in tension, and sometimes in total opposition, to certain other voices (say, for example, the tension between what Walter Brueggemann has referred to as the ‘justice tradition’, and the ‘holiness tradition’ in the Old Testament; or, to provide a further example, the contradiction between the imperial Davidic theology found within some Psalms and Proverbs, and the anti-imperial prophetic theology, found within the Prophets and the Gospels).  Further, we should also have no issue with other contradictions and scribal errors within the Bible (say, for example, the different accounts of who killed Goliath, found in 1 Sam 17.50 & 2 Sam 21.19).  All of these things are to be expected when humans, with all their limitations, try to bear witness to God — and none of these things take away from the fundamental coherence of the Bible, which we have mentioned above.
(4) Therefore, the task of the contemporary reader of the Bible is to learn how to negotiate this coherence, contradiction, and cultural conditioning in order to witness to, and participate within, God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general and humanity in particular.

(4.1) This, then, leads me to reject some other contemporary ways of reading the Bible.  Most notably, I am led to reject the more standard Conservative reading of Scripture which tends to favour a supposedly ‘plain reading’ of Scripture, and which tends to assert that we must accept everything said by the Bible — or by a certain voice within the Bible (usually Paul) — to be universally true and binding.
(4.1.1) Thus, to pick a fairly straight-forward example, on the one hand, we can see how Paul’s emphasis upon the ways in which Christ and the Spirit abolish various hierarchies within the community of faith (cf., for example, Gal 3.26-29), coheres well with the broader trajectory of Scripture; but, on the other hand, we can also see how Paul writes as a culturally-conditioned person, when he asserts that ‘nature teaches us’ that it is shameful for men to have long hair, and for women to have short hair (cf. 1 Cor 11.14-16).
(4.1.2) However, this rapidly becomes more complicated and we can begin to postulate that other assertions have more to do with the cultural conditioning of the biblical authors than they have to do with the revelation of the God of Life.  Take, for example, New Testament references to hell and the punishment of those who fall outside of the community of faith.  It is clear that some New Testament authors believed in the future torment and damnation of their enemies and oppressors (this is likely true of the author of John’s Apocalypse), but one wonders how much this belief accords with the revelatory history of God’s life-giving, liberating, healing, reconciling, and peacemaking character and actions.  It is quite possible that the affirmation of hell is simply an element of the cultural conditioning of some biblical authors whose understanding of God is still constrained by then contemporary notions of power, sovereignty, and judgment and who then read those notions into their experiences of God in history (this is what Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is talking about when she criticises the so-called ‘kyriarchical’ approach taken by Paul in some epistles).
(4.2) Of course, we are negotiating a rather slippery slope, and the immediate objection to what I am saying here is that I, an equally culturally conditioned person, am setting myself up as an authority over the Bible (instead of affirming the Bible as an authority over me) and allowing my own subjective preferences to determine which parts of the Bible cohere with the big picture of God’s life-giving engagement with us, and which parts are simply reflections of the various authors cultural conditioning.  However, this is not the case, and I also reject other, more liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible that treat it in this way.  At the very least, my approach need not be any more subjective and arbitrary than any other approach to the Bible.  After all, we must recall that all approaches are subjective and arbitrary, at least to the degree that we all subjectively choose which approach we are going to take to the Bible, and to the degree that every approach affirms some things the Bible says as universally binding (say that worship of the God of the Bible is related to living fully human lives) and denies other things this significance (say certain Old Testament food laws, or what Paul says about hair).  Again, I am doing no different than every other exegete who recognises some injunctions within the Bible as authoritative, and some injunctions within the Bible as no longer authoritative.  Furthermore, my approach does require the reader to recognise the authority of the biblical witness to God’s life-giving engagement with us, with all the subplots and implications that come alongside of this leitmotif.
(4.3) One of these implications is that readers of the Bible must not be content to simply hear about, or observe, what the God of Life has done within history.  Rather, we must also go on to participate within God’s ongoing life-giving engagement with creation and with us.  To properly read the Bible is to learn to embody and proclaim the witness of the Bible in both word and deed.  To read this witness is to be transformed into martyrs fully engaged in life-giving acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in opposition to the power of Death, which finds expression in contemporary structures of sin, bondage, sickness, division and violence.  Submitting to this implication is a hard thing to do, as it requires nothing less than everything from us, so it comes as no surprise to me that others might be tempted to flee into more Conservative readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a list of requirements, but requirements that are decidedly more manageable than this call to martyrdom) or into more Liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a lot more freedom to pick and choose which demands are made authoritative).
(5) Thus, we can conclude that reading the Bible is a difficult task that precludes any simple or straight-forward way of achieving understanding — so beware of any hermeneutical model that offers you these things!  Reading the Bible is something we can only do with a good deal of trepidation, and a good deal of assistance from the community of faith, the world at large, and the Paraclete.

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  1. I would be shocked if more than 1 in 50 Christians that I know reads the Bible outside of the weekly sermon reading. And I’m afraid those who do read the way you suggest rarely find anything new there since I’m not sure you’re actually “reading” it. New ideological uses of the Bible would be more exact.
    I wonder how many Christians can accept this sort of formulation you offer here. I would think not more than 5%. Do you ever worry about the future of the church?

  2. Dan…your thoughtful writings have, once again, sent my mind down the path of thinking ‘deeper things’…and it’s early in the morning! The clear and simple approach of this writing was also most enjoyable to read! I love the content – as I’m reading it, my gut is agreeing with it.
    Hope all is well…Congrats on the arrival of your beautiful son. I wish I had had your email address so that I could have congratulated you in a less public forum. Wow – so many of my past RAs have children…eek…

  3. Good stuff. I guess one of the things I’m left wondering is how we ought to go about interpreting things as ‘culturally-conditioned’ as opposed to ‘still applicable’.

  4. WOW u is deep! and you read books.. one day i hope to say the same for myself…that i read books.
    i like the way you explain your view of how the Bible is to be read and interpreted. i would like to agree with your full first statement and all the explanations that come after.
    i think if we are using this resource as a tool to understand “knowledge of good and evil” then we are not using the tool as was intended. i do not think the Bible is written as a guide to tell us what is right and wrong (traditional way of reading as i interpret it) but rather for us to understand and receive life (Christ). i think if we try to read the Bible with the points that you have mentioned along with the ideal of an infinite all encompassing God then we can understand the Bible and how this limited (contradictions and all) text fits into a limitless God.

  5. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for this post – very helpful and it has given me needed food for thought.
    I would be interested to hear your thoughts more on 1.3. The reason I am disatisfied with the ‘witness’ model is that it seems appropriate for much but not all of the biblical texts. Other models, such as authoritative canon, inspired word and revelation are discussed by Goldingay in Models for Scripture. He too prefers Witness but is careful how he formulates matters. Perhaps Vanhoozer’s essay in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology may also be of interest in terms of 3.1.

  6. I look at it differently from you …
    … but I honestly just LOVE that photo of the three of you. It’s maybe the most enchanting family love snap I’ve seen!

  7. Very good, though I would prefer a greater emphasis upon the importance of reading, interpreting and living out the scriptures in the context of a disciplined community of christ-followers.

  8. thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully work this out and post it. i linked over from nathan c’s blog.
    as a near graduating mdiv student, i appreciate much of what you bring and hope that others near you can learn to read and read with you.
    perhaps a practice of midrash aught to be emphasized, that as you are rooted in a christian tradition, you also read within one and interpret in the context of a faithful community.

  9. A new reader here. I appreciate the basic thrust of several of your points, and want to comment on point 2 in particular.
    I want to affirm your statement that, more than a cosmology (or cosmogeny), salvation history is primarily “God’s life-giving engagement with us is primarily revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peace.” This is the material edge in scripture that we ignore to our own peril. The Lord our God comes to us as the Redeemer, that is, as the One who heals this place, this body, this reality. When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” He does not point past His healing of Lazarus; or if He does, He points through only to Himself, not some general “spiritual truth.”
    On that note, however, I think your second point is weakened because it doesn’t frame healing within the rubric of resurrection, or, most properly, the One who resurrects. You rightly detect a need to section yourself off from a kind of metaphysical dualism between Life and Death, but this could have been done by parsing the ethical identity of the Christian community in terms of a resurrection people called by the One who has already overcome death – through the Easter event.
    This may also strengthen your claim that the Bible has a privileged testimony to God’s grace. It (and it alone) witnesses to the ultimate life-giving purpose of God: that, by Christ the Lord, our flesh will rise.

  10. Thanks for the post.
    It amazes me that God so carefully superintends, not the words on the page, but the retention of the periods, with all of humankind’s wrong-headed-ness, culture, flavor, and nuance—unashamedly, preserving even the embarrassing and shameful in the history of His pilgrimage with us, and how humankind through the generations understood him.
    With that in mind, and I hope, accurately distilling some of your thoughts (as I share your view(s)), I have arrived at an understanding that I can only sort out the scriptures, the Hebrew text and the Church writings, through the life of Jesus—allowing his stories to capture God’s intentions of giving life, and sorting out the bits throughout the old and new that humanly contradict, through his life, not discounting the vast information we have, to recapture what life was like during his earthly pilgrimage. Admittedly Barthian…
    It is very humbling to become a student of him/his, and in so doing, finding God’s life vividly expressed through human flaw and frailty, and far more closely identifiable. A dangerous journey to be sure, but superiorly glorious in relation to his love!!
    Again, thanks for this post…

  11. Prov 30:5&6….
    EVERY word of God IS Flawless:
    HE is a shield to those who take refuge in HIM.
    DO NOT add to HIS words,
    Or HE will rebuke you, and call you a liar.
    This Book is no ordinary book, it REVEALS the MIND of GOD, the state of man, the way of salvation; the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers !For the word of God is LIVIVG and active, sharper that a double edged sword…Hew 4: 12&13. Gal 1:9. 2 Peter20….Above all, you must understand that NO prophecy of Scripture came by the prophet’s own interpretation.21 For prophecy never had its orign in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit !! ALL Scripture IS GOD BREATHED, so therefore ALL of it is HOLY and not open to man’s feeble humanistic understandings…its not open for debate, you either believe it ALL or you don’t , you can’t have the N,T., without the O.T.,

  12. You’ve put into very impressive vocabulary and reasoning some of the thoughts that have become my own since I first threw down the Bible in frustration and abandoned my old, dualistic, conservative reading of it.
    Now, I don’t read it. Why? Because I don’t know where to start. And I don’t know whether the part I’m reading is ‘culturally conditioned’ as you call it, whether it is still relevant…and while I believe any reading of any text is subjective, I can’t find a place between open-ended subjectivity and black and white fundamentalism.
    Instead, I’m trying to just get out there and serve, and forgive, and be honest. But something tells me there’s at least part of that book that’s worth reading — since my desire to live like Christ comes from the testimony on some of its pages!
    Any suggestions, anybody?

  13. Its impossible to Live like Christ or for Christ if you refuse to get to Know Him through HIS Word. Sure you can do “good” things , by your own strength, we can all do that, but if you want to SUBMIT to God through Jesus Christ, you have to do it on His terms, and not your own… what if You can’t understand The WORD ! do you really want to, on HIS terms not your own? then I challange you to stand out IN obedience, and pick up his Word AS the Revealed WORD of Absolute Truth, and invite the HOLY SPIRIT to open the eyes of your heart; to Purify your heart, to renew a right spirit within you, and bring you to a place of brokeness and repentance, so He can transform your life , and reveal to you HIS Glory. If you really want to get to know this Glorious God in a Living and active way…..obedience is key, even if our finite minds cannot come to terms with it…ALL of God’s WORD IS Living and Active…….Blessings, keep your eyes on Jesus, and off of man !!

  14. Very well written piece . I would say to Carla (18 feb)..dont give up with the bible..I felt like you having been v influenced by views of Orlagh Turtle but also seeing that fundamentalist dogmatic views of actually quoting scripture in situations because “that’s what the bible says” bore v little fruit in the lives of the people quoting. I started studying the bible from all different sources,including reading blogs like this and have come to an understanding of the bible similar to the young man who has written this blog..I think educating oneself in what one should/shouldnt believe is all part of the christian journey..I have found HTB’s theolog school St Paul’s theolog college really helpful in my quest for diff types of views literature etc..Thanks for your comments

  15. Look, you can either take the scriptures for what they say at face value, or you can pick and choose and interpret them how you like. But all you’re doing with the later is making a God of your own creation.
    But really, unless you are outside Christ it really is straightforward to understand. The difficulties people usually have are when the scriptures contradict our beliefs, our actions, or the human traditions of our community of faith.

  16. Thanks people for sharing some views. I can’t say I find it wise to align myself fully with your perspectives (servant and Orlagh). Orlagh, I wasn’t saying that I don’t want to obey – that’s precisely what I want to do. It’s just I don’t think the way to do so is as black and white as we might like. In other words, how to obey, day my day in each life situation, relationship, etc., can be quite complex to interpret!
    Servant says: ” Look, you can either take the scriptures for what they say at face value, or you can pick and choose and interpret them how you like.”
    Surely there’s a way to go beyond face value without creating your own God! How can any of us read an ancient Hebrew / Greek text without doing at least a little searching for what’s beneath “face value”? None of us ever reads anything without reading our own ideas into the ‘under the surface’ bits. That’s how human brains work. Add to that the conscience, plus the ‘invisible wind’ influence of God’s living Spirit, and…I’m simply saying things are not as easy as I once believed they were.
    Thanks Rebecca for some hope that a journey of understanding is ahead of me. I’m not giving up, I’m just finding it a little overwhelming, that’s all!


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