Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Reading biblical narratives

Big percentage of the Biblical materials is narrative. Narrative is a literary form characterized by sequential action involving plot, setting and characters. The meaning of the narrative derives primarily from the actions of its characters. Rather than telling us how to live or how not live, stories teach us the same through the actions of the characters.

The purpose of these stories is theological. God uses them to teach us theology. The Bible gives us examples how to teach profound truth through stories and I believe we can use it to teach our people too.

Why did God choose narrative literature to communicate theological truth to us? Why didn't he communicate everything through essays or law? Think for a moment about these questions. Here Duvall and Hays list some of the advantages and disadvantages of using narrative to communicate theological truth.

Advantages of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth
  1. Narratives are interesting, both to children and to adults.
  2. Narratives pull us out into the action of the story.
  3. Narratives usually depicts real life and are thus easy to relate to. We find ourselves asking what we would have done in that situation.
  4. Narratives are easy to remember.
  5. Narratives portray the ambiguities and complexities of life.
  6. God can include himself as one of the characters in the narrative. Thus he can teach us about himself by what he says and does in specific contexts.
  7. Narratives are holistic; we see characters struggle, but we also often see resolution of their struggles. We see the entire character.
  8. Narratives relates short incidents and events to a bigger overall story.
Disadvantages of Using Narrative to Communicate Theological Truth
  1. The meaning of the narrative can be subtle or ambiguous and not clearly stated; the casual reader may miss it altogether.
  2. The reader may get enthralled with the narrative as a story and miss its meaning.
  3. The reader may assume that since literature is narrative, it deals only with history and not theology.
  4. The reader may read too much theology in the narrative (allegorizing).
Here the pros outweigh the cons. The authors of the Bible thought the same. I agree with Duvall and Hays that God chose to use the literary device known as narrative as major way to communicate his big story precisely because the biblical narratives engage us in such a powerful way. They challenge us, interest us, rebuke, puzzle us, and entertain us. They stick in our memory. They make us think and reflect. They involve us emotionally as well as intellectually. They teach us about God and his plan for his people. They teach us about all kinds of people--good ones and bad ones, faithful, obedient ones and mule-headed, disobedient ones. They teach us about life in all its complexities and ambiguities.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 288-294

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Interpreting Revelation

to_chain_the_beast.jpgReading Duvall & Hays' Grasping God's Word has been a fascinating experience for me. The book provides me with the latest method in biblical studies. They are reinforcing the traditional methods that scholars find to be still valid. They also present some of the more effective approach to studying the different literary genres of the books of the Bible.

Here Duvall and Hays suggest specific principles in interpreting Revelation. The following are mostly direct quotes from their book:

Read Revelation with humility. We should resist "Revelation-made easy" approaches. Revelation is not easy. People who must satisfy their curiosity or people who are unwilling to live with any uncertainty are those most likely to read into Revelation things that are not there. Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the smallest questions. "Experts who claim absolute knowledge about every minute detail of Revelation should be held in suspicion. Reading with a humble mind means that we are willing to admit that our interpretation could be wrong and to change our view when biblical evidence points in a different direction.

Try to discover the message to the original readers. Discovering the message to the original audience is top priority with any book of the Bible, but especially with this one. When it comes to reading Revelation, the tendency is to ignore the first Christians and jump directly to God's message to us. Some people use today's newspapers as the key to interpreting Revelation. But as Keener notes, this approach does not fit well with a high view of Scripture.

The best place to begin is with the question: What was John trying to communicate to his audience?" If our interpretation makes no sense for original readers, we have probably missed the meaning of the passage. Fee and Stuart remind us of how important it is to discover the message to the original audience: As with the Epistles, the primary meaning of the Revelation is what John intended it to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood it to mean.

Don't try to discover a strict chronological map of the future events. Don't look for Revelation to progress in a neat linear fashion. The book is filled prophetic-apocalyptic visions that serve to make a dramatic impact on the reader than to present a precise chronological sequence of future events.

Take Revelation seriously, but don't always take it literally. Some who say we should interpret Scripture symbolically do so in order to deny the reality of scriptural truth or a historical event. When they say that something is figurative or symbolic, they mean that it is not real or that it never happened. That is not the intention of this book. We insist that picture language with its symbols, images, and figures is capable of conveying literal truth and describing literal events. Picture language is just another language vehicle, another way of communicating reality. In our way of thinking, Revelation uses picture language to emphasize historical reality rather than to deny or diminish it.

Pay attention when John identifies an image.
When John himself provides a clue to the interpretation of an image, we should take notice. In other words, we should pay close attention when John identifies or defines the images for his readers. We can not assume that images like lampstands would always refer to the churches. John may use the same image to refer to different things.

Look to the Old Testament and historical context when interpreting images and symbols. Revelation uses language at several different levels:

Text level: words written on the page
Vision level: the picture that the words paint
Referent level: what the vision refers to in real life

One of the most difficult aspects of reading Revelation is knowing what the images and symbols refer to. Even when we understand what is happening at the text and vision levels, we may not know what Revelation is saying, but we are often not sure what it is talking about.

The two places to go for answers are to the first-century historical context. Revelation uses much of Old Testament imagery. The book is filled with echoes and allusions to the Old Testament. In fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other New Testament book, with the Old Testament appearing in almost 70 percent of Revelation's verses. Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel make the most important contribution to Revelation.

Above all, focus on the main idea and don't press all the details. This last interpretive guideline is perhaps the most important of all. With most literary genres in the Bible, we begin with the details and build our way toward an understanding of the whole. With revelation, however, we should start with the big picture and work toward an understanding of the details. As we seek to identify the theological principles, we should focus on the main ideas.

The details of any particular section will heighten the impact on the reader but will not change the main idea. Resist the temptation to focus on the details so that you miss the main idea. Don't let the main point of each section or vision fade from view. As has been said, when reading Revelation, the main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.

*The image is from Meta-Logic Cafe'.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 288-294

Common errors in word study

When we study the Bible, it is necessary for us to do word studies. The aim of word study according to New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee is “to try to understand as precisely as possible what the author was trying to convey by his use of this word in this context.” We as readers should not be the one who determine the meaning of biblical words; instead, we discover what the biblical writer meant when he used a particular word. Duvall and Hays insist that we should always keep in mind the distinction between determining the meaning and discovering the meaning.

Even though we do not know the original biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, we can still do word studies. The use of exhaustive concordance like the Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance is very helpful. The idea here is to use a concordance that matches the version of the Bible you are using.

Duvall and Hays mention the most common word study fallacies that we tend to make when we do our Bible study.

English-Only Fallacy. We all know that the Bible was not written in English and even though we might think that a particular version is closer to the original, it is not the original. Here are some of the problems that may occur. First, a word in Hebrew or Greek is often translated into English by a number of different English words. The other is that we may not be aware that different words in Hebrew or Greek can be translated into English using the same English word. This error happens when we base our word study on the English word rather than the underlying Greek or Hebrew word, as a result gives us a unreliable or misleading conclusions. Looking up the word in an English dictionary would help us in understanding the word in a passage, but it will not in anyway gives us the right understanding and might lead us to a wrong interpretation. Any Bible teacher should have a working knowledge of the original language or learn to use the Hebrew and Greek tools.

Root Fallacy. We have this idea that the original root of the word determines the meaning of the word. I heard preacher who discussed the root of a word and used that meaning every time that word occurs in his sermon. Think about how silly it is in English to use the root of the word to understand the meaning of a “butterfly.” This is also true in biblical language. Just because we can recognize the root words of a Greek word does not mean we have discovered the “real meaning” of the word. It is true that the individual parts may accurately portray its meaning, but only if the context supports such a meaning. The context should give priority over etymology.

Time-Frame Fallacy. This error occurs when we try to tie a late meaning to the word and read it back to the Bible, or when we insist that an early word meaning still holds when in fact it has since become obsolete. I guess this also happens when we try to assign a very late idea to a related word that the first century Christians would not even had the faintest idea. D.A. Carson gives as an example when translators use the word “dynamite” for the Greek word dynamis to illustrate this kind of fallacy. He says, “I do not know how many times I have heard preachers offer some such rendering of Romans 1:16 as this ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite”… did Paul think of dynamite when he penned the word?”

Overload Fallacy. We commit this error when we include all the possible meanings a word could have. Any preacher should not take the same words from another book and apply its meaning to the word he is studying. The word may be the same but the context determines the meaning of the word.

Word-count Fallacy. We make this mistake when we insist that a word must have the same meaning every time it occurs. For example, if we are confident that a word carries a certain meaning in seven of its eight occurrences in Scripture, we might assume that it must have the same meaning in its eighth occurrence. Again word meanings are determined by context, not word counts.

Word-Concept Fallacy. We fall in this error when we assume that once we have studied the word, we have studied the entire concept. It would be a mistake to assume that we can know everything about the church just in studying the word “church” (ekklesia). This word study will certainly give us important information but the concept of the church or any concept for that matter is bigger than any one word.

Selective-Evidence Fallacy. When we teach we usually cite verses that supports our favored interpretation and we tend to ignore if not dismissed the passages that seems to argue against our view. This is selective-evidence fallacy. This error is dangerous because we do this mistake intentionally whereas we might commit other fallacies unintentionally. Although we want the Bible to support our convictions in every case, there will be times when its message confronts us for our own good. When that happens, we should be willing to change our view rather than twist or ignore the evidence found in the Scripture.

Duvall & Hays, Grasping the God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading and Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, pp. 133-135