Gerasene biblical interpretation

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(This is a repost from the old blog because I want to refer to this post in my next one – original Nov 2009)

I have just been marking the final assignment for our introductory course on Understanding and Interpreting the Bible. We used Duvall and Hays book as the core and basis of the course (bibliographical details below). They picture the process of interpreting the Bible today in terms of four (or five for the Old Testament) simple steps:

  1. The text in their town – what the text meant and/or was intended to mean or do in its ancient context(s). The outcome of this phase should be a short summmary couched in the past tense e.g. Paul exhorted his hearers to…, Jesus challenged the Pharisees… or Luke encouraged Gentile believers…
  2. Measure the width of the river – encourages interpreters to notice and take account of the barriers time and space have erected which interfere with our capacity to read and understand the text. In the course we stressed this, and noticed time and again the tendency, deeply engrained in Evangelical Christians, to seek to apply the Bible without thinking.
  3. Uncover the principle – religious discourses usually are either based on or give expression to theological principles, unlike the message of a passage (which is time-bound and specific) these are timeless and general.
  4. For the OT: consider the passage through the lens of Jesus and the NT. If Christians believe that Jesus fulfills the OT then this step may well qualify their understanding of passages from the Hebrew Bible.
  5. Apply the passage. Unlike the principle, but mirroring the message these will be specific, and they should be multiple. Both the specificity and multiplicity together help people to then generalise the application to their own lives – generalised applications usually leave their consumers merely with vague good or bad feelings but called to no specific actions.
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We had reminded the class of these steps each week, and practised them most weeks. As well as looking in more detail at how to study the expression of the text, its literary and historico-social contexts and how various Gattungen of biblical literature work.

Doing this marking I have been forced to notice that (at least among NZ Evangelicals) the default response to a first reading of a biblical text is to draw a pious vaguye general “application”. This process is like applying a bandaid, quick and easy and painful to dislodge. It is also like a band aid, easier when it is thin – verses are easier to “apply” than narratives.

The result is that faced with the wide and deep “river” that separates us from the authors and hearers of the Bible, we instantly run full tilt down the hill and throw ourselves at the river.

Hence my title, because of this Gerasene tendency (Mark 5:13) many Bible interpreters end up face down in deep water!

Duvall, J. Scott, and J Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s word : a hands-on approach to reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible. Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan, 2001.

Duvall, J. Scott, and J Daniel Hays. Journey into God’s word : your guide to understanding and applying the Bible. Grand Rapids Mich.: Zondervan, 2008.