How to interpret the Scriptures

A church member will sometimes ask how I go about interpreting the scriptures. I am tempted to answer, “On the run,” since I preach and teach several times each week. Thinking more about the question, here are some guidelines.
First, read the scriptures. Take your time. Expect to become confused along the way. Listen for the larger story in which all the particular tales find their place: God at work to rescue all creation by all the means at God’s disposal.

Second, be aware of the interpretive grid you bring to the task. We all bring presuppositions to the work of interpreting the scriptures, assumptions drawn both from secular and religious culture. History is filled with discarded presuppositions: slavery as normative and acceptable in God’s sight, sickness and poverty as signs of God’s disfavor and women as the property of men. As a rule, it’s best to assume the scriptures confront rather than reinforce our presuppositions.

Third, pay attention to scholarship. We know far more about ancient languages, politics, commerce, religion and daily life than we did a century ago. Such knowledge sometimes helps us better discern a scripture author’s intent. For example, we now know Jesus’ teachings carried both religious and political implications in his day, and such knowledge reshapes our understandings of the four Gospels.

Fourth, listen to the scriptures to hear what God might have to say to you. Such listening goes by many names, but the goal remains the same: to open ourselves to the direct work of God in our lives. In my own case, certain scriptural phrases have sunk deep into my mind and heart, becoming the bedrock convictions that inform my walk with Christ: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “my yoke is easy,” “love one another,” “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me,” and the like.

Fifth, interact with others, through listening, conversations, reading and reflection. Be sure to engage not only those who share your worldview but also others who are quite different from you. You will find you sometimes help another person. More often, you will find others assisting you to interface better with scripture.

Finally, test your interpretation in the rough and tumble of daily life. Does it wear well over time, deepen your bond to others, challenge egocentric habits of thought and action, foster worship and lead you to partner with God in God’s work of redeeming the creation? If so, chances are you’re on the right track.

This post originally ran on ABPnews on February 12, 2012.

Mike Smith

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Mike Smith serves as Senior Pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, Tenn. He is co-author of "Mount and Mountain: A Reverend and a Rabbi Talk About the Ten Commandments."

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