How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Part I

Over the past few months, my small group read through the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.  This book has been incredibly helpful in terms of both practical tips and theoretical background knowledge necessary for really understanding the Word of God.  Some passages left me feeling stupid for never having realized the point before, and others left me deep in thought pondering the implications.  In the current post I will summarize the introductory chapters of the book, and in the following post I will discuss some of my favorite and least favorite sections.

The Need to Interpret

The first chapter of this book discusses the role of the reader as an interpreter.  Interpreter, you say?  I don't need to interpret scripture, I merely need to read and understand what it says at face value!  Well, not so fast.  It's just not that easy, for there are two things that get in the way: the nature of the reader and the nature of Scripture.  We can see the way human nature influences interpretation all around us in the contemporary church; not all "plain meanings" are plain to all.  Should women be allowed to speak in church?  Should they cover their heads?  Should infants be baptized?  What is the correct mode of baptism?  Many churches argue that their understanding of these biblical issues is the "plain meaning."  As a result, we have everything from insignificant pragmatic differences to disagreements about the way to be saved.  Yet everyone claims to be reading the same words of scripture.  As the authors state it, "The antidote to bad interpretation is not no interpretation but good interpretation, based on commonsense guidelines."1  Further they concisely state their goal for the book: "to heighten the reader's sensitivity to specific problems inherent in each genre [of the Bible], to help the reader know why different opinions exist and how to make commonsense judgments, and especially to enable the reader to discern between good and not-so-good interpretations"2 (emphasis by the authors).

As mentioned above, the nature of Scripture also causes difficulty with interpretation: it is at the same time both human and divine.  As such, it has both eternal relevance to every age and culture, and historical particularity.  That second characteristic is to say that each document has been "conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written."  This presents the student with two challenges.  First, God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.  In order to understand the Bible, then, we must know certain special rules that apply to each of these literary forms, or genres.  The second challenge is this: the Bible was written to and for people in a variety of different circumstances over a 1500 year period or longer.  We, however, are far removed from those circumstances, and so will invariably have a harder time understanding those circumstances than the original recipients.  Points of connection need to be drawn between the author and the original audience that we do not share with either.  This means that some amount of work will be required to fully understand the original intent of different books and passages.

The authors go on to define two necessary goals of the Bible student: good exegesis and sound hermaneutics. To put it briefly, exegesis is what the text must have meant by the original human author to his original human recipients, while hermaneutics is how the text applies to us-- twenty-first century Western Christians. Without applying each of these correctly, we are in danger of coming away with a significant misunderstanding or misapplication of scripture. Admittedly, the authors define these words a bit idiosyncratically, but are transparent about this and consistent with their usage throughout the book.

A Good Translation

The second chapter discusses the nature of translation, as well as different theories of translation. Since most students of the Bible are not fluent in ancient Hebrew, Koine Greek, or Aramaic, they are forced to use a translation. This means that God's Word is not available to us directly, but only through the specific methods used by a single translator or committee. As such, it is critical that we understand the methods used by translators, along with the differences between major translations.

There is a spectrum of translation types which ranges from Formal Equivalence on one side to Free on the other and Functional Equivalence in between the two. A Formal Equivalence utilizes a word-for-word "literal" translation, while a Free translation is not really a translation at all-- rather it is more of a paraphrase. A functional equivalence falls somewhere in between by attempting to translate the intended meaning in a verse without necessarily sticking to a word by word algorithm. The authors list a handful of Biblical versions and show where they fall on the spectrum. The diagram below illustrates this spectrum:

To better understand the significance of these differences, let's look at Matthew 18:23-24, the beginning of the parable of the unforgiving servant, in several different translations:
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. (NASB)

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. (NIV)

The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. (The Message)

The first two translations are more or less the same, with one key difference: where the word "talents" shows up in the NASB, it is replaced with "bags of gold" in the NIV. The NASB, a translation utilizing formal equivalence, simply transliterates the Greek word ταλαντον which was a well known monetary unit in the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written. The NIV translators, knowing that the term ταλαντον is a completely foreign concept to modern western readers, opted for a less specific phrase: bags of gold. The phrase "bags of gold" is not a literal, word-for-word, translation of the original Greek, but was chosen so as not to cause confusion to English readers.

The third translation, The Message, is obviously different from the first two in a lot of ways. The overall structure and words choice is significantly different, and the translator used the phrase "a hundred thousand dollars" in place of ταλαντον. This is because the goal is to make the text more relevant and accessible to the modern English reader. As such, it does not even claim to be a true "translation," but more of a paraphrase. Other areas of translational difficulties where the differences between these will come out are: other units of weights or measure, euphemisms, and grammar and syntax (ie. Koine Greek has no punctuation).

Each of these versions have pros and cons. A formally equivalent version, such as the NASB or ESV, can help a reader better see the original structure of the text and so see what possible understandings are allowed for, but has the drawback of being unnecessarily confusing in situations of historical or cultural context (units of weight and measure, cultural euphemisms, etc). A dynamically equivalent version, such as the NIV, will help the reader better grasp the meaning of the text in specific situations, but relies more on the translator's understanding of the original text and can possibly introduce bias. A free version, such as The Message, is not the best for direct study, because it will be very dependent on the translator's theological bias, but can be used like a commentary to compare different viewpoints and stimulate thought. The authors of this book recommend that the Bible student always has one of each a Formally Equivalent and a Functionally Equivalent on hand at all times. A Free version can be consulted as well from time to time.

Hopefully, the reader will now have a good idea of why it is important to understand how the nature of human beings, the nature of the Word of God, and the nature of translation can affect the interpretation of scripture. In the next post, I will discuss specific tools to be used while studying several different genres found in the Bible.

1. Fee and Stuart, 1981
2. Ibid.
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  1. I thought to myself, "that isn't right" when I read their definitions for exegesis and hermaneutics o.O


  2. Ha, yeah they are definitely not the standard definitions.