At some point (or in my case many points) when you read the Bible, it starts to poke back at you — not just by challenging our beliefs, worldviews, and characterizations of God, but also the very approaches we use to understand it. It’s a good thing to want to know what the Bible means. But left to our own devices, it will almost always look like adding in our own biases, assumptions, and grids, and that’s never a good thing to do with a book that severely downplays human potential and even positions itself against our works when it comes to salvation. And yet, we try all the time to scale a mountain we were never meant to climb.
I had my own experience with this in my mid-20s, early on in my Bible-interpreting journey — an eye-opening paradigm shift that came, somewhat counterintuitively, with less trying and more submitting to the (foolish) direction of Scripture itself. But before I got there, or rather was helped there by God and others, I took the scenic route down the winding roads of some less-than-helpful methodologies that turned me inward rather than to the only one who can reveal mysteries.
One of these roads was the modernistic emphasis on historical context and authorial intent. Fee and Stuart’s book Reading the Bible for All Its Worth popularized this approach in the 80s and 90s — at least in my circles — but many others have sung the same tune. The argument is that the Bible can only mean to us what it meant to the first audience. So, the majority of our interpretive efforts must center on grammar, language studies, immediate literary context, and things like word repetition and other literary devices. “What did Moses mean when he wrote Genesis 1?” becomes the principal question. “What Hebrew word for ‘God’ does he use? How would this have defied Egyptian deities and other ancient near eastern creation narratives? Why does the word ‘good’ come up so frequently?” Meaning is confined to the words themselves, and the clues are in the words if you understand the background, drown out all other noise, and let the syntax give you a glimpse into what the human author intended.
On a similar level, a well-meaning seminary professor once assigned me Robert Alter’s book The Art of Biblical Narrative, which is a non-Christian Jewish man’s literary approach to reading Old Testament narrative. I didn’t see the irony at the time, but it was a surprising choice for a Christian seminary seeking to teach future pastors how to read the Bible in a distinctly Christian manner. Didn’t Jesus get on the Pharisees’ case for reading the Old Testament on their own terms and not as though it were all about him? But I digress.
Now, is this all bad? Not necessarily. Does understanding the original languages, literary context, and word repetition sometimes help with Bible study? It does. But here’s the problem: the Bible never uses these methodologies when it’s referring to or interpreting itself. Instead, when you read the New Testament, it’s much more concerned about how all Scripture orients us to the one who wrote it into existence, Jesus Christ, the Word that gives meaning to all other words. And many times this goes beyond what it meant to the first author and audience. The early church fathers called it sensus plenior, or “fuller meaning” — the idea that Scripture was written historically on the outside but spiritually on the inside and that true understanding comes from both parts, not just the outer shell.
The Book of Hebrews is one helpful place to go to see this way of reading at work. It shows us with surprising ease how the Psalms are about Jesus (even more than David), how Israel’s desert wanderings are typical of the Church’s, and how Moses, Joshua, and Melchizedek all foreshadow Jesus in their intercessory and priestly roles. I remember reading Hebrews when I was a younger Christian just trying to make sense of the landscape of the Bible and being quite taken aback at that. I would channel my best Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that verse, I don’t think it means what you think it means.” But, Hebrews — seemingly uninterested in our modern interpretive tools — operates in a way that makes more sense of the Bible. It shows how one can be truly centered on the grace of the gospel all of the time, not just in theory or for the starting place of faith. A way consistent with how Jesus shows the two disciples in Luke 24 how the entire Old Testament is about him going to and coming back from the grave.
The bigger passage for me in helping to fully cement this paradigm shift in my brain was Galatians 4:21-31. In it, the Apostle Paul interprets the Old Testament story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (and the two sons the two women have, from Genesis 16) as an allegory. The story of Abraham sleeping with Hagar so she could produce a son so that God could make good on his promise to bless the world through his offspring is contrasted with the story of how God miraculously allowed his wife Sarah to conceive in her old age. Paul says the two women represent two covenants or ways of relating to God. Hagar represents the Old Testament, and Sarah represents the New Testament. Hagar represents human effort and works — it was Abraham’s way of saying to God, “Don’t worry God, I got this. I know we’re too old to have kids, so I’ve figured out a workaround.” But Sarah represents God’s effort and grace. What happens to her flies in the face of Abraham’s arrogance in thinking he could help God, not to mention his adulterous actions. With Sarah, God did everything. He made life come out of nothing, Sarah’s 100-year-old, barren womb. The ultimate theological landing point being: Jesus came from Sarah’s child, Isaac, because Jesus would come from the genealogical line of grace, not works. It’s like the story is a microcosm of the two main testaments of the Bible: the old that conditions salvation based on law observance gives way to the new that comes completely by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not at all by our help, works, or moral prowess.
That is what Genesis 16 means.
Learning to read the Bible this way was category-busting for me. Like a pair of decoder glasses were placed over my eyes. Just like Jesus had saved me from my sins single-handedly, so does he now single-handedly serve as the one true lens to understanding the Bible’s meaning. No longer did I have to be held down by complex methods that left me wondering if I did them right, which in turn created doubts surrounding the point of a passage and how I failed to hear God the right way. No longer did I have to read overly-simplistic moral lessons into stories like Sarah and Hagar. No longer did I have to miss the forest for the trees. Instead, I could read the Bible the way the Bible reads itself, that is, with less effort, with less of ‘me’ altogether, and more sitting at the feet of Jesus, having my eyes opened and my heart stirred when he opens the word by means of his own blood (Lk 24:32).
It reminds me of what Kathleen Norris says about the Benedictine monks: “Although their access to scholarly tools was primitive compared to what is available in our day, their method of biblical interpretation was in some ways more sophisticated and certainly more psychologically astute… [It] was far less narcissistic than our own tends to be, in that their goal when reading scripture was to see Christ in every verse, and not a mirror image of themselves.”
This is what the Bible means when it says we need the Spirit to help us understand (Eph 1:17-19). The Spirit isn’t just an assistant to our own human ways of reading it, the Spirit is the way himself. Meaning: as Paul pits the Spirit against the works of the flesh so often in his letters, the only way to truly get at God-intended meaning is to see what we would never see in the Bible on our own if the Bible itself didn’t first show us, that is, Christ crucified and raised. “The rock Moses struck was Christ,” it says (1 Cor 10:4). So was the snake lifted up on the pole (John 3:14). So was the passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7), the temple (Jn 3:19), and the torn veil (Heb 10:20). And on and on it goes. This kind of stuff is foolishness to the world — even to some “Christian” approaches — because it deviates from what we expect to find, but it’s the power and clarity of God to all who see Christ in every verse, and his story in every other story.
Ian Olson says, “We don’t need more truth: we need the news that changes the world.” Before you dismiss that as unnecessarily dichotomizing, yes, the gospel is the truth. And vice versa. But it’s also possible to mistakenly search for the truth apart from the gospel. And that, when it comes to biblical interpretation, is the worst of sins. Our own grids for understanding the Bible, when drenched in too many layers of human ingenuity and trust in our own ability to understand, are Abrahamesque ways of saying to God, “Look, I’ve figured out how to do it on my own, apart from Jesus!”
But God will have none of it. He’s too loving for that. The only way to understand is by reading the Bible on his terms, through the lens of grace (over and against our works), as though it’s much more about him than us. For he alone informs, enlivens, and clarifies the varied pages of God’s one story.