[This post is a part of the What is a Lutheran? series]
As Christians, the Scriptures are central to what we believe and teach. All the doctrines that we believe hinge on our understanding of how God has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures. God reveals himself to man in a variety of ways. You can look around the world and come to the conclusion that there must be a god. After we had Eli, my wife often said, “I don’t understand how someone can watch a child be born and not believe in God.” In nature that are certain things that point to the simple fact that there must be some kind of Creator behind it all. While God certainly reveals himself in nature through many different things, there is still a lot of God that remains unknown if nature is all that we have.
We don’t understand how God interacts with humanity, why the world is the way it is, the explanation of evil in this world, or even the idea that we are sinful and we are in need of a savior. These things cannot be understood simply by staring at a beautiful sunset or the Grand Canyon but instead are revealed to us in the Scriptures, which is God’s words to us. Because the Bible is God’s written word, not simply containing God’s words but being God’s word in its entirety, it shapes everything that we teach and believe as Lutherans. We believe that the scripture should be what’s shaping and driving our teaching, not the changes in culture, our own opinions, or the reasoning of many smart people.
So if the Bible is a key piece of what we believe, how should we read the thing?
Context, Context, Context
A lot of times people like to use the term “literalists” when describing how they read the Bible. The term is often used negatively, trying to condemn the people who either read the Bible literally or by those who are self-proclaimed literalists to condemn those who don’t read the Bible “literally.” Many people who claim to be literalists do not actually read the Bible literally. For example, when Jesus says, “I am the door.” Nobody in their right mind is going to interpret that as literally meaning that Jesus is a door like on the side of your house, that he has hinges and a door-knob. Instead they have an understanding that Jesus is using a metaphor; metaphors are not literal.
The way that we read the Bible as Lutherans would not be described as literalism; more accurately we read the Bible the way the Bible was literally intended to be read. This means that when the author of a book intends that something be understood as metaphor, we read it as such. And when an author intended that something be understood as apocalyptic literature, we read as such. And when it was intended to be a historical account, we don’t assume that the event is simply allegorical and count not be historically possible.
As you read the Bible in this manner, you have to consider the context. If you are trying to understand the way the authors intended the words to be understood, it sometimes takes work. What do the other surrounding verses say? How does this fit with the whole of scripture? What genre of literature is the author writing?
What context to pay attention to:
- Take grammar into account. Look at the surrounding words, sentences, and paragraphs.
- Look at the whole of scripture. Has somebody written about similar concepts somewhere else in the Bible?
- What kind of book are you reading? The book of Revelation should be read significantly different than the book of Genesis; know what you are reading.
- Who was the original audience?
- What is the plain and simple meaning? While we look at all the context, we should not neglect what the words plainly say. If a first grader reads a statement like, “this is my body.” We should take seriously what it simply means while also considering the surrounding context.
People often like talk about what passages in the Bible “mean to them.” I’ve heard preachers talk about the countless meanings that can be derived from texts. The problem is that this perspective is simply wrong. The Bible only has one meaning and that meaning is what the original author was trying to plainly say. There might be thousands of applications, but only one meaning. When Jesus says, “Go and make disciples” it only has one meaning, but it applies to all kinds of different people for all different kinds of reasons.