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

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The reader will recall from a previous post that I recently finished How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, with my small group. Overall, our group found it to be an incredibly helpful guide for how to approach the unique nature of the Bible with all its different genres and books. In that post, I summarized the first two chapters of the book, which serve as introductions to the difficulties of interpreting and translating scripture. In the current post, I will discuss those chapters of the book which I found most and least helpful.

The Epistles as Occasional

Chapters two and three of this book, which are among my favorites, focus on how one should read the Epistles. As discussed in the previous post, in order to understand what any part of the the Bible means to us, we must first understand what it meant to them (the original recipients). To do this, we must really understand what type of literature a book is, and why it was written in the first place. The epistles, of course, are letters. Simple, right? After all, letters are often straight forward and easy to follow. Except these letters are obviously not simple. If they were, there would not be quite so many disagreements among Christians. Each letter is slightly different. Some are letters written to individuals, while others are written to groups. Each uses different parts of what formal letters of that time would have contained. Some would be impossible to recognize as letters at all if the recipient had not been addressed.  For example, 1 John has none of the formal elements of a letter (name of writer, greeting, etc) and James is written such that it is almost indistinguishable from a theological tract.  The one thing that all the epistles have in common, though, is that they are occasional. This means that they were "occasioned, or called forth, by some special circumstance, either from the reader's side or the author's."1 This is the most important point to keep in mind while reading the epistles, because it is the single factor that makes them so difficult to understand.

I really enjoyed the practical advice the authors gave for reading the epistles. A Bible dictionary, Bible encyclopedia, or study Bible should be used to better understand the historical and cultural context that surrounds the letter, before even beginning to read it. Once this is completed, the letter should be read out loud from start to finish in one sitting. All letters are intended to be read this way. One would not receive a letter from a relative or friend and read it in parts, a paragraph or two each day. That just wouldn't make sense. And neither does it make sense to read a biblical epistle that way. When reading through the epistle, one should take notes on each of the following:
1. What does the letter reveal about the recipients themselves?
2. What does the letter reveal about the author's attitude toward the recipients?
3. What does the letter reveal specifically about the occasion for being written?
4. What are the natural/logical divisions in the letter?

Upon completion, these steps should be repeated for each logical division, paying attention to more and more specific details. The last step in determining what the letter meant to the original recipients is to create a paragraph by paragraph map of the overall argument. Read each paragraph in turn and jot down a single line summarizing what it means. Going back through this map can help one get a better understanding of the point being made by the author.

Next the authors discuss the hermeneutical aspects of the epistles-- what do they mean to us? Which commands or paragraphs apply to modern Christians and which were specific to Christians in the original historical/cultural context? This is where I became a little disappointed. The authors offer two general guidelines which are great, but simply do not help the reader with any of the so-called "problem statements" in the epistles in a satisfactory way. The first of these ideas is consistency. We often see Christians arguing that we should disregard some command in an epistle as "no longer relevant to the Church," or "specific to the people it was being written to," but then see those same Christians arguing that we need to follow a command listed in the exact same paragraph or section. A good example of this is how some Christians will use 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to argue that women should not even speak in church, while most of those same churches would argue against the rest of chapter 14 as applicable in the 21st century. Even if the believer ends up being wrong about how certain sections of the epistles should be interpreted, he should at least strive to be consistent in his hermeneutical approach. The other piece of advice given is to maintain humility. I agree strongly and think humility should be striven for in any sort of philosophical or knowledge-based enterprise. The fact is that many of the most intelligent Christian thinkers throughout history have disagreed about how some sections of the epistles should be interpreted. We should do our best to find the correct interpretation while humbly admitting the possibility that we are wrong. Beyond these general guidelines, I do not think the authors offered much help for how to specifically interpret problem passages in the epistles.

The Parables: What's the Point?

By far the most fruitful chapter of this book was the one on parables (this was unanimously agreed upon by our entire group). The major point emphasized in this chapter was simple, despite its strong consequences. It is very common for one to read a parable as if it is a detail by detail allegory where every single word parallels some deeper meaning that is intended to be conveyed. In some of the more difficult parables, this often leads to arguing and confusion. In reality, the parables are not designed to deliver hidden theological messages, but to evoke an immediate response in the audience! This could be anywhere from conviction and repentance to sadness or anger, depending on the parable and the context. As such, rather than a detail by detail parallel, the student of the parable should be looking for a minimal number of direct points of reference shared by the speaker of the parable and the audience. By focusing on these points of reference, it becomes much easier to discern what the point of a parable is.  Consider the well known parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:3-7.  The speaker is Jesus, and the audience is full of both tax collectors and sinners, as well as self-righteous pharisees.  Upon identifying that the three points of reference in the story are the father (God), the wayward son (the sinner), and the obedient son (the self-righteous religious believer), it is easy to see the point of the parable.  It is intended to evoke repentance and gratefulness in the sinners and tax collectors, and humility in the pharisees.  While this parable is not too difficult to understand, the concept can be applied to much more difficult passages, such as the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16 (our group studied this parable after reading the chapter and felt like it made complete sense to us for the first time).

The Psalms: Whose Words are They?

The chapter on the Psalms was perhaps the most disappointing in the book. The Psalms can be difficult to understand because, even more than other books in the Bible, they are supposed to be God's inspired words, while also clearly reflecting the thoughts, desires, and opinions of their composer (often King David). This makes it especially difficult to determine which opinions or desires are meant to be emulated, and which are simply a result of the author's sin. While the chapter dealt well with some of the more straightforward psalms (those expressing thanksgiving or lament), the so-called "impecatory psalms" did not seem to be adequately resolved. For example, Psalm 137 reads "happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks." As a Christian, it is hard to imagine it being morally acceptable to take joy in anyone's infants being "dashed to the rocks," even if it were a deadly enemy. Fee and Stuart argue that the psalm is expressing to God the feelings of the suffering Israelites using hyperbolic language. Does this mean we should or should not seek to react to suffering this way? It is not clear from the book. And if not, the question remains: what warrant is there to emulate the attitudes and expressions found in those psalms of thanksgiving or lament, and not in the impecatory psalms?


As expressed many times previously, this is a must read for any serious student of the Bible. It is written in such a way that gives enough technical detail (defining and using terminology from the fields of linguistic and textual criticism, for example) to really make one feel like they've grown as a student of the Word, while writing in such a way that is interesting and easy to follow. I have heard recommendations from pastors, seminary students and lay people alike, all who claimed to have benefited greatly from reading it. Although there will likely be areas where one finds the text disagreeable or confusing, the book as a whole is sufficiently edifying.


1.  Fee and Stuart, 2003
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