I first met Marcelo on a hot summer day. I was pastoring in northern Argentina, having a weekly Bible study with a couple who lived in a tiny village. Their house was small, and its tin roof made the heat almost unbearable.
Two weeks before, they had spoken to me about Marcelo. “He lives in San José,” they said. “He wants to study the Bible with you.”
They gave me his address, but I didn’t have anything on which to write it, so I forgot all about it. The following week the same thing: directions to Marcelo’s house, nothing to write on, I forgot.
Then on this hot afternoon, as we were nearing the end of our lesson, we heard someone outside clapping their hands (no doorbell). It was Marcelo. He had walked almost an hour at midday, with temperatures above 100F, because he was thirsty for the truth. After a short introduction he proceeded to ask question after question; about God, the Sabbath, the end-times, etc. Then he paused and said: “Pastor, I may sound confrontational, but don’t think I am trying to argue with you; I honestly want to know God’s truth.”
I felt guilty, humbled, and inspired. How can someone have such a passion, hunger, and thirst for God’s Word to walk an hour in the scorching sun simply to meet a stranger and ask him questions about the Bible? I had more factual knowledge about the Bible than Marcelo, but he had more passion and hunger for God’s Word than I did.
Reading the Bible is crucial to a healthy spiritual life. But how we read it is even more important. Whenever we hear “We ought to read the Bible more,” we should reply with a hearty “Amen!” But
how much we read God’s Word is not as important as how we read it; for how we read the Scriptures determines our relationship with God and others.
There are different reasons to read the Bible: as a routine; “it’s the Christian thing to do”; to argue with others; for doctrinal knowledge; or to know and experience God. The ultimate purpose in reading the Bible should be to know God more intimately, to know Him as He really is. For this to happen, we need to read it the right way.
I maintain that there is a crisis of Bible interpretation. In 2011, in an article for
Christianity Today, Todd Billings alluded to this crisis and observed: “The crisis does not simply involve a decline in the Bible’s authority. Even when the Bible is turned to as the authority, it’s not necessarily interpreted Christianly.”1 In other words, not only are Christians not reading the Bible as much—they are not reading it well.
Jesus spoke about how to read the Bible. “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25). The question is a good and important one; after all, is anything more important than eternal life?
Luke’s account leaves no room for doubt: the question was asked “to test Jesus.” Jesus did not dodge the query. He replied, as He often did, with questions of His own: “‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘
How do you read it?’” (verse 26).
I find it interesting that to the question “How can I be saved?” Jesus replied, “How do you read the Bible?” This is a profound and remarkable statement! Our spiritual health as followers of Jesus, both individually and corporately, as well as our eternal destiny, is directly related to how we read the Bible. In theological terms this “how” is called hermeneutics.
We need each other, not just for support and encouragement, but also for input and spiritual insights.
Hermeneutics comes from a Greek word that means “to interpret.” At its most basic level, hermeneutics deals with the following aspects of the Bible: the author/s, the text, and the readers (us). In other words, our presuppositions, attitudes, and approaches to the author/s, the text, and reader/s make up the “how” of reading the Bible.
Key to reading the Bible rightly is the question of authorship. There are different theories about the authorship of various books of the Bible. And we must look diligently at all the factual evidence so that we can stand on solid ground when we espouse a specific position. Beyond the human authorship of individual books, whether or not we believe in God as the ultimate author makes a big difference.
Even if one believes that God is the author behind the authors, what does that mean? Adventists believe in
thought, not verbal inspiration. Ellen White wrote: “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. . . . Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts.”2
Once we accept that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16), we no longer see it as just another book. We Adventists consider ourselves heirs of the Reformation precisely because of our high view of the Bible. Like the Reformers, we believe in the principle of
Richard Davidson presents a list of principles of biblical interpretation under the umbrella of
sola scriptura, using the Latin terms by which these concepts first became known during the Protestant Reformation:
Can readers be totally objective and completely neutral in reading and interpreting God’s Word? Certainly not. Does that mean that interpretation equals relativism, or that there is no objective truth whatsoever? Not at all. What then?
We have to acknowledge that we each come to the text with our own limitations, with cultural and contextual baggage; we all see and understand the world differently. In this sense, there is never pure objectivity and neutrality in interpretation.
But whereas we each see the world in unique ways, we do not have to share prevailing assumptions about it.
4 Rather, we have to recognize our presuppositions and humbly acknowledge that our views, as objective as we try to be, are always limited and partial.
Here are 10 commandments for reading the Word of God, based primarily on Nehemiah 8.
5 The first five deal with the text of God’s Word, and the other five deal with us as readers.6
This means reading intertextually, comparing texts and ideas with the rest of Scripture. As Jesus exemplified on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), all Scripture points to Him.
Jesus replied to this question with a story, the well-known story of the good Samaritan. This story teaches us that going the extra mile, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the well-being of others, even risking our lives to assist those in need, is often good evidence that one is reading God’s Word the right way.
I met with Marcelo several times after our first encounter. We studied the Bible together in his home in San José, and he eventually decided to give his life to Jesus. I was privileged to witness one of the most beautiful things in this life: when spiritual hunger meets spiritual food, and spiritual thirst meets spiritual water.
Jesus offers spiritual food and water for humanity, and He can be found primarily and most fully in His Word. He said: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39).
To Jeremiah He also said: “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
That is how we ought to read the Scriptures.
Gerardo Oudri is pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Andrews University.