I was just reading a recent letter from my acquaintance, Abdu Murray, about his interaction with a Muslim questioning a fact about Jesus. Abdu answered the questioner by turning to the actual text of the Bible. The answer was clear and the questioner was corrected in his thinking. The issue, as presented by the questioner, was ‘Here is a scripture that speaks against your position.’ But Abdu wasn’t so easily put off, he did what we all should: he opened up his copy of scripture and read it.
If I remember anything that Dr. Breshears hammered into my thick skull it was this: “Look at the text.” There is no good interpretation outside or detached from the text. You would think that would be obvious: how can you interpret words when you will not read them? But it happens all the time – embarrassingly, especially in the church.
I used to be guilty of this all the time. Somebody at work would make some claim about what the Bible said. Usually some verse or phrase taken wildly out of context. But I would make a mistake; I would say something like, “No, that’s not right” and correct the error, talk about the text, and all of that without looking at the text! That was a weak response.
What I should have done was just respond with, “Well, open up your Bible…,” (always have the questioner use their copy, which they trust) “… and let’s look at the text.” The answer is usually there in the context of that stray verse or clause. That means looking at the sentences above, and then below; understanding the whole paragraph. That means understanding the flow of thought through the paragraph, what the paragraph really is about, and where that stray verse or phrase fits.
Dr. Breshears encouraged us to have the questioner read the text themselves and then to ask them “simple interpretive questions.” Questions like:
“Who is the author talking about here?”
“What do you think was happening at that point?”
“What does this word refer to?”
“What point is the author trying to make?”
“After reading the whole paragraph, was the author talking about this, or that?”
Simply looking at the text, rather than talking about the text, is really why the Bible exists. Recently, somebody made an assertion, ‘supported’ by scripture, in a group setting that I ‘felt’ was wrong but was momentarily thrown. So I said the right thing: “Let’s look at the text.” We opened to the passage, read through the relevant paragraph, and by the time we got to the end of the paragraph, it was clear that the assertion was ‘foreign’ to what the text was really communicating.
So what I’m urging you, fellow Christian, to do next time you get into one of those workplace or classroom ‘discussions’ about scripture is to find the passage, get your questioner to read the actual passage, in context, and ask them ‘simple interpretive questions.’
As a postscript, there is a great little essay by Greg Koukl on why you should “Never Read A Bible Verse” that speaks to the importance of context. You should read that!