Have you ever wondered why two people reading or studying the Bible can come up with such different conclusions about the meaning, impact, implications, or application of the same text of scripture? It happens all the time and in almost every discussion about the Bible.
One of the biggest reasons for this is related to how different people approach and read a text of scripture. We might call these approaches “lenses” through which each person reads the text. Whether you know it or not, you have lenses and so do I. The important thing is to identify the lenses you’re using and understand the lenses that the person you’re talking to is using. Once you get that down, you’ll likely find it easier to engage and understand the perspective of the other person.
In the world of biblical studies there is a huge “cast of characters,” each of whom has a passionate interest in approaching the text of scripture, but who may also bring a different set of priorities, objectives, lenses and tools with them with which they do their interpretive work. I’m providing this short list (you can add to it in the comments, or tweak mine if you want) so that when you’re in dialogue with someone who is looking at a text differently you can discern how they are coming to the text.
The Interpretive Cast of Characters & Their Lenses
1. The Systematic Theologian – Primary Lens: I tend to approach the Bible as a topical theology book. Even when I go to the Bible and read an entire section I may tend to look past the context, genre, history, etc., and look for the topics and themes, then peel those out to look at them more closely. There are some big themes in the Bible like God, humans, Israel, sin, Jesus, Church, Spirit, heaven, hell, and the future. I passionately rake over the text of the Bible using all the tools at my disposal to find these topics so that I can categorize them properly. I may alphabetize them, or systematize them into a logical order and demonstrate how they all relate to one another. I write books like, “The Bible from A to Z,” or “Everything the Bible says about money (or faith, or healing, or marriage, or angels, or whatever),” and if I’m preaching, I typically start with a topic (like faith, or God’s love, or prayer) and find a collection of verses from various places in the Bible and use them to reinforce my big idea. My friends remind me that the Bible is not written topically, but I remind them that there are topics that repeat themselves over and over nonetheless, and it’s helpful to see that.
2. The Biblical Scholar – Primary Lens: I look at each text uniquely. I try to let each author speak for himself since each wrote for a particular purpose and a particular audience. Like my friend the linguist (featured below), I care about the original language too, but I also know that there are lots of copies of biblical manuscripts and some of them differ in big and small ways. I try to compare these manuscripts when I have questions about the way things have been translated. I also pay close attention to the author of the text. Was he Jewish? Was he Greek? What were his influences? What were his sources? Why did he write? What’s his writing style? The linguist, the literary analyst, and the genre specialist share many of my concerns, and want the answers to many of the same questions I ask.
3. The Biblical & Church Historian – Primary Lens: I believe that the Bible is a narrative that happens over the course of history and inside of a historical context, and that people have been reading and interpreting the Bible over the entire course of the Bible’s history and up until the present day. I also believe that this texts has been viewed in different ways over the course of time — both in Israel’s history, and in the Church’s history. I want to make sure we take those things into account when we read this text. I sometimes have to remind my fellow students of the Bible that such-and-such was happening at the time of the writing of a text, or that Christians have not always interpreted certain verses the way we may be interpreting it today. This happens all the time when we study eschatology! I’m always reminding my fellow Bible students that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re the first group of people to study the Bible or to make theological conclusions about what we’re reading.
4. The Literary Analyst – Primary Lens: I want my study-group to always remember that the bible is a collection of books which must be understood on the basis of their various literary structures and components. Like my friend the Genre Specialist (below), I pay close attention to genre, but I work more with broader analysis of the text and take into account a host of questions (including many of those asked by my colleagues here). So, when I study a text I ask about genre, historical, cultural, and geographic context, author, audience, occasion for writing, manners and customs, key words and phrases that recur in the text, and grammar and composition devices like comparisons, rhetorical questions, Old Testament quotes, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism, and a host of other literary tools that all writers use (including the ones who wrote the different books of the Bible). I want to make sure that I have taken all of this into account before I make my theological conclusions. I find that I have to do this regularly when our group has a guest who insists that he/she just “takes the Bible literally” or “at face value.” These folks often want to jump to conclusions about applying the texts before they adequately understand all of the elements in the text first.
5. The Biblical Linguist – Primary Lens: The Bible was written in original languages (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and unless you have developed a grasp on these languages as I have tried to do, you may not be able to fully understand certain things in the Bible. Sometimes there are three ways to say the same thing, or one way to say three different things (the same is true in English). Unfortunately, English bibles are typically all people bring with them to Bible study, so they tend to get a little nervous when I reference original languages. But it’s important to know that there are different ways to word things, and different linguistic nuances in every language. Having a grasp on these things helps me understand the Bible better, and I try to use my skills to help my friends see things that they might otherwise miss.
6. The Genre Specialist – Primary Lens: When it’s my turn to give input, I usually begin my sentences with something like, “As a Lukan (or Markan, or Johannine, or Pauline) specialist,” or “As someone who has done most of my work in the Pentateuch (or the minor prophets, or apocalyptic literature, or wisdom literature, or epistles, or gospels, or whatever…) — this is an insight to remember. My specialization gives me insight into how different types or genres of texts attempt to communicate as compared or contrasted with completely different genres. I have learned that it’s important to ask, “What kind of text is this?” before I make my theological conclusions. Take poetry for example (you can find a lot of that in the book of Psalms). If I say “Roses are red, violets are blue…” and it’s clear that I’m writing a poem, then don’t misunderstand me to be emphatically insisting that all roses are red. People make that kind of mistake when reading the Bible all the time! Sometimes my friends who love systematic theology get irritated by this, but I remind them that every text on their topical list has an original context, and genre is a huge part of that context.
7. The Traditionalist – Primary Lens: I am a Calvinist, Ariminan, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Pacifist, Catholic, Orthodox, Messianic Jew, Dispensationalist, Word-of-Faither, Feminist, Graduate of “this” seminary, etc., and I begin with my loyalty to this tradition, teacher, system, institution, or denomination as my starting place for reading the Bible, no matter what text I’m looking at.
8. The “ologists” – Primary Lens: I am an anthropologist, or a sociologist, or a psychologist, or an astronomer, or a biologist, or some other kind of “ologist.” I have a lot of time invested in my discipline, and I bring my tools with me to the text of scripture. It’s nearly impossible for me not to look at the text of scripture through the lens of my discipline. In fact, there are whole approaches to biblical interpretation that have developed because of my discipline. When I’m in the study, I tend to think about the scientific implications, or the relational implications, or the way the text might impact a family or a society.
9. The Devotional Reader – Primary Lens: When I pick up the Bible I just read it and hope God will speak to me. I may not know the difference between poetry or apocalyptic literature, or why it matters that a text was written to a particular group or individual with their own circumstances. I mainly read the bible to get help with my own circumstances. I might use a devotional book or a devotional journal and a Bible reading plan to work through it all. I write down or underline verses that stand out or speak to me in personal ways. God speaks to me in profound and helpful ways when I read the Bible. That’s why I love it so much. I might use my concordance or a Bible website if I need to look up something I don’t understand. I really don’t take an academic approach to the Bible, and it makes me nervous to know that I don’t really know as much as all of the other specialists here at the table with me. Sometimes, especially if I get frustrated or insecure, I tend to spiritualize that fact and tell everyone that I’m just listenin’ to the Lord when I read the Bible, and I don’t know what they’re doing. I know that makes me seem defensive, but it happens. Other times I am humble and realize that I could learn a lot from these people who love the Bible just as much as I do. Why else would they take the time to learn Biblical languages or specialize in whole books of the Bible? Thank God for them! As for me, right now I just read it. I’m still learning. When I understand something it helps me get through my day or my personal circumstances. However, there are times, because I love everyone at my group, that I have to remind them to listen to the Holy Spirit while they’re applying their discipline to their study of Scripture. They seem to appreciate the reminder!
10. The Biblical Theologian – Primary Lens: I fancy myself the facilitator of this group of people. I think the Bible has a big story that begins in Genesis with Creation, and ends in Revelation with New Creation. In between, I think the story moves along the lines of the fall, the promise of restoration, the flood, Abraham, Israel, David, the Kings, Jesus, Gospel, The Spirit-filled Church, and the New Creation at the end of the age. I want to make sure that any conclusion I make about an individual text or theme fits in with the big story. If it doesn’t I tend to question my conclusions (or those of others). I value the inter-disciplinary approach to studying the Bible. I think we need the systematicians, historians, linguists, literary critics, scholars, specialists, ologists, and every-day devotional readers. We all need to read the Bible together and share our insights. We also need to remember that the story of the Bible is central, and we should keep that in mind whatever text we’re looking at. That will help keep us from coming up with strange, aberrant, or bizarre conclusions (which tends to happen when groups or individuals only read the text through one lens and forget that there are lots of others, and that we need them all).
So, there you have it. If you put these ten characters around a table with their Bibles open to a text, be sure you’ll have a lively, confrontational, insightful, difficult, illuminating, frustrating, enlightening, and hopefully life-changing discussion about the Bible.
Feel free to add to the list, or suggest adjustments to this one in the comments below.