Scene One: The “Postmoderns-Only Book Club” gathers together on a Tuesday night. They meet at the sterile, quiet library space, fiction novels in hand as they take their seats at the round table. Jim, the group leader, begins their time together with a discussion of this week’s chapter. “In today’s discussion we come to the main character’s decision to leave his hometown. What does his leaving town mean to you?”
“I think he’s sick of being there and wants something new,” one woman remarks.
“Good analysis,” Jim responds. “What else?”
“I think it means he wants to get away to learn again how to appreciate his hometown in a new way,” a man comments.
“Great answer,” Jim agrees. “Anyone else?”
“I think he’s unsure about where he wants to live so he’s testing the waters,” another woman chimes in.
“That’s a great interpretation, too,” Jim says. “Great work everyone!”
Scene Two: Across town, a Bible study group begins their meeting at the host home. The inviting and warm living room is now filled with finger foods, Bibles, and a community group of people from different backgrounds. They take their seats on the couches and floor. Jason, the group leader, begins their time together with a discussion of this week’s chapter in Romans. “In today’s discussion we see a key section in Chapter 7, verses 13–25. What does this passage mean to you?”
“I think Paul is talking about non-Christians because of the man’s slavery to sin,” one man offers the group.
“Alright, good insight,” Jason says. “What else?”
“I think Paul is talking about Christians because we still struggle with sin now,” another man argues.
“Okay, good,” Jason responds. “Anyone else?”
“I think maybe it’s less about Christians versus non-Christians and more about the hopelessness of law-based salvation,” a woman suggests.
“That’s a great interpretation, too,” Jason says. “Great work everyone!"
Two Words That Change Everything
We would like to believe that a Bible study group and a postmodern book club would be worlds apart in methodology. But I would argue these two scenes are not too far-fetched. There is an overlap between the two that may seem subtle, but actually carries profound implications. Did you catch the two words that both Jim and Jason used in their opening questions? The two words in question are “to you.”
“To you” seems like an innocent way to invite everyone’s voice to the table for discussion, but I contend that it’s a surefire way to kill effective Bible study. Of course, some fiction books, for example, are written for the sole purpose of leaving their interpretation open-ended. But this is not the way of historical, bona fide Scripture, the words of God Himself. Though nuance and opinion has its place at the table, the problem with “to you” is that the phrase elevates a reader’s interpretation over the author’s intention.
When discussing the Word of God, “What does the passage mean to you?” is a much different question than “What does the passage mean?”. So, how do we give different views of Scripture their proper place without falling into a postmodern-friendly “to you” way of thinking about our Bible study times? Here are three ways forward in this endeavor:
1. Affirm Scripture’s Clarity and Our Limitations.
The clarity of Scripture is an important doctrine that applies directly to this conversation. It asserts that Scripture, cover to cover, is able to be clearly perceived and understood rightly when our hearts are illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Of course, we all know that we have limitations to understanding God’s Word completely. None of us have “arrived.” We still wrestle with interpretation. We still search for answers. These limitations are not the fault of Scripture, rather they are faults within us. We are limited in understanding. This has been God’s intended design since the Garden of Eden, where the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden, demonstrating God’s superiority to man in knowledge. This breeds humility when we come to the text and, as we’ll see in the points below, often leads us to discovering what Scripture has to say.
2. Use Scripture to Interpret Scripture.
Often, our confusion surrounding a certain verse or passage can be remedied by using Scripture to interpret Scripture. In the scene above, instead of a feelings or opinion-driven answer, we can derive the real meaning of the passage by using context, cross-references, and other writings by the same author. In other words, the best way to examine Romans 7 is bearing Romans 6 and 8 in mind, looking for overall themes in the book of Romans, watching for Paul quoting other Scriptural passages, and so forth. Scripture is Scripture’s best interpreter because it can never err nor lead us astray. That doesn’t mean our limitations go away, but using Scripture as a tool helps us dig to the meaning.
3. Lean on the Spirit for Guidance.
Part of the importance of getting in our Bibles is to witness the Spirit revealing what the Word is saying to us, revealing its truths and insights to us. We know the feeling of coming across a verse for the hundredth time and reading it in a whole new way. This is the work of the Spirit.
John 16:13 says the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth.” The word is not a truth, but truth itself (John 17:17). In our times of Bible study, personally or communally, we must remember that our Bibles are telling one story, not our preferred version or color of it. Getting to the right interpretation involves hearing others out, reading commentaries or listening to sermons. But more than anything, our hermeneutic should come from how the Spirit is guiding us to the truth.
So, it might get awkward for a second, but next time your Bible study asks you what a passage means to you, remember that there we are not reading and studying relative truth. We study actual words of God, located in history, truthful for all. Interpreting the Scriptures is not an easy task, but it is a worthy and high calling. That is why we must depend on the Word to help us decipher the Word and on the Spirit to guide us in that task. Throw away the individualism and relativism of “to you” and take up the Word of truth.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. – Proverbs 1:5-6