Bible Study Basics for Writers: Part One with Eric Gagnon
by Eric Gagnon
Note: This week and next week, the COMPEL Blog will be publishing part one and two of Bible Study Basics for Writers by theologian Eric Gagnon. Eric is a former pastor and currently serves at Proverbs 31 Ministries as the Theological Content Manager for the First 5 App. Eric has a Bachelors Degree in Church Ministry and a Masters in Theology from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. This week, Eric will guide you through the first rule of Biblical interpretation, understanding grammatical context. Next week, Eric will teach you the basics of understanding historical context and literary considerations.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-12.
As many of us know, God gave us teachers to help us study His Word and know Him better. Wise teachers over the centuries have provided us with some basic rules for interpreting the Bible. While volumes of books have been written on this topic, these are some my thoughts on the broad topic interpretation.
First of all, what we’re discussing is called hermeneutics, which is just a fancy word for the science or study of how to interpret. The subject matter of interest to us for the interpretation at hand is, of course, the Bible. Most Christians believe the Bible is not just a book. We know it was compiled by dozens of authors, in three continents, at least a couple ancient languages and over hundreds of years. But we also believe it is God’s very words to us, as He personally guided the Bible’s creation.
Since these words are God’s words then, and they are holy, meaning “set apart, different.” Because of that, we are wise to approach these words with care and reverence, lest we be guilty of “twisting” them to teach and say simply what we want them to say and not what God has intended (2 Peter 3:16).
The attitude that we bring to the Scripture therefore is humility and a commitment to lifelong learning. We stand under the Word of God and see it as our authority. It has been wisely said that it is not our goal to “master” the Scripture so much as it is to have the Scripture master us. To say it another way, when we examine the Scripture, we should experience the reality that it is actually the Scripture that examines us.
It is alive (Hebrews 4:12) and with it God accomplishes whatever he purposes. (Isaiah 55:11) So the Bible doesn’t just contain words about God. They are God’s own Words. Whenever we read what Paul teaches, for example, we are actually shown in that moment what God says. I’ve heard people say they disagree with something Paul said, but if we believe “all Scripture is God breathed,” (2 Timothy 3:16), disagreeing with a teaching of Paul in Scripture is something we should not do. That is why Paul can say to the Thessalonians, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Additionally, John 1:1 says “…the word was God.” In Revelation 19:13, Jesus “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” So we don’t study the Bible to learn about God so much we study the Bible to meet with God. Therefore I would also say the opposite must be true, that if we aren’t studying the Bible, we aren’t meeting with God. Prayer is the primary way we speak to God, and His Word is the primary way He speaks to us. The Word of God is how we know Christ better, and therefore is the primary way in which he has chosen to speak to us today. (Hebrews 1:2)
With these thoughts in mind as our foundation, everything else I am about to say is secondary, including the following tools for interpretation.
As a teacher of God’s Word, it is important to get familiar with two concepts that represent the two ways of approaching the text. There are only two. While you may not remember how to pronounce or spell the words exegesis or eisegesis, we should all be familiar with what they stand for.
Eisegesis is starting with an idea you want to teach and then finding Scripture to support your view. This is dangerous because it begins with a presupposition, and runs a greater risk of bias, or subjectivity. With this method we read into the text what we want it to say. Using this method one can potentially use the Bible to propound whatever ideas one wishes.
Instead, what we should be aiming for is exegesis, which means to draw out the meaning in the text. With this method, we first decide what passage of scripture to study, and only after our study are we able to say what it is we will be teaching about. Each time we study God’s Word, we humbly admit there may be something to learn, even if it is a passage we are very familiar with. If exegesis is our goal, then we will be far less likely to use the Bible as our own soapbox for our own agendas. We can’t fully escape our own biases and lenses in which we see the world, but we can pray and make it our goal to discover the message God has his people, rather than deliver our own messages.
Here are some practical ways to “exegete” or draw out the meaning in Scripture. I’ll be discussing 1) Grammatical context and 2) Historical and literary context.
Part 1: Grammatical Context
What I mean by grammatical context is, without consulting any other resources, look first simply at the language or text itself.
It’s best to have read the entire Bible at least once in your lifetime before teaching any passage. Knowing Jesus himself tells us to “judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24) will give balance to what we say about him telling us to “judge not.” (Matthew 7:1)
When we study a verse of Scripture we should study 1) the surrounding verses 2) the chapter 3) the book or letter itself 4) what the rest of the Bible might say about that verse. The further away from the verse we get in the Bible, the greater chances of similar sounding verses having different meanings, and it’s important to understand the differences. For example, in Ephesians 6, it is widely accepted that the breastplate of righteousness actually refers mainly to right-doing, in context, rather than the righteousness we receive in Christ (Romans 4:22). Knowing this enhances what we might teach about Ephesians 6.
With this in mind, it follows that when we cite Scripture in our teachings, most of the verses we cite should probably be found closest to the very verse(s) we are teaching on. Entire sermons and entire books can be written on 2-3 verses of Scripture if we do our homework. In other words, when someone finishes reading our teaching they shouldn’t be left wondering which passage it is they just studied. It’s not likely people will be able to remember that if instead of primarily verses closest to our passage we cited scripture from all over the Bible to support what we wanted to say.
Bible Versions and Original Languages.
Do check out multiple translations but please be careful which ones you consult. It’s important to realize that all Bible versions are translations from manuscripts of ancient Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek for the Old and New Testament, and sometimes even from Latin or Aramaic or other languages. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, more modern Bible versions are actually considered more accurate than older translations because they had direct access to even older manuscripts. For example, if you like the KJV I would encourage you to instead try using the NKJV which consults the oldest manuscripts we have access to today.
For example, one verse that comes to mind is 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Modern translations show that Scripture there seems to be teaching us to avoid “all kinds” of evil rather than the “appearance” of evil. This has great implications, as it seems Jesus certainly appeared to be evil to many people, associating so much with the lowly that he was called a glutton and a drunkard. So we are to avoid being and doing evil, not necessarily appearing evil. We may appear evil while actually doing good! If we are to avoid doing the right thing as to not appear evil, then Jesus certainly wouldn’t have been able to die on a cross for us.
One of the reasons I like the ESV translation is that it is a word-for-word translation, whereas the NIV is a thought-for-thought translation. For this reason the NIV may be easier to read and understand since entire thoughts are translated into modern language, but the ESV may be better for Bible teachers because it translates the definitions of each word more accurately. I am not against using the NIV, in fact I would recommend it to a new Christian for reading through the Bible.
But knowing that the New Testament was written primarily in one language (Greek) should prevent us from searching for translations of verses to support what we would rather they say. Instead as teachers we should ask ourselves, is this the best way of translating this from the Greek? Translations like The Message Bible are actually paraphrases and not actual Bible translations. The Passion Translation is not a Bible translation, and in my opinion and according to my research is also a poor paraphrase. Please just be careful how you use translations and consider how faithful they are or aren’t to the original languages.
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