Scripture: Written for our Instruction Not just for our Information

In reading the Bible, it is important to have a frame of reference in which we place the text we are reading in order to understand the scripture.   Some argue that the plain reading of the text is always the literal reading of the text, but we need to keep in mind that biblical literalism is an interpretation of the scriptures.   However we decide to approach the scriptures – literally, critically, or spiritually – that is our method of interpretation and shapes what we see and how we read the text.  This is much in line with the old adage which says you have to believe in miracles in order to see a miracle – a miracle won’t bring you to belief, because if you don’t think miracles happen, even if one does you will interpret it in some other way .

The bible itself does not order us to read the text literally.  The literal reading of the text is a possible reading and sometimes the best reading of a text, but it is not the only possible way to read the text.  In contrast to a literal reading of the text, biblical scholars often rely on a historical-critical reading of the text, which is another interpretive method in which the reader attempts to discern what the original context of the scripture was and what the original author/editor of the text was thinking and trying to convey.  It actually is another form of literalism, but often comes to a very different conclusion about the text’s meaning than does pure literalism.

If we study the hermeneutic of the various New Testament writers in their use of and comments on the Old Testament (hermeneutic = the method of interpretation), we discover that the authors of the New Testament did not follow only a literal reading of the Old Testament, nor did they follow the norms of the historical-critical method in their use of or interpretation of the Old Testament.   Take for example St. Paul’s comments in Romans 15:3-4:

“For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

First St. Paul is making a moral exhortation to the Roman Christians about love – taking care of the other before yourself.  He then points to Jesus as the primary example of love, of one who did not please Himself, but did what was good for others first.  In this St. Paul is clearly contrasting love (which is always other oriented) and self love (which always places the “I” or “me” or “mine” before the other).  His commentary is moralism and he is trying to shape the attitude and behavior of his readers.

Second, St. Paul quotes from Psalm 69:9 as a scriptural reinforcement of the principle of love which he is promoting.  Paul takes a verse from Psalm 69 which in its own context has a particular reading and meaning and he uses the verse as if the words were said by Christ.  Psalm 69 is a lamentation of David as he speaks about his own life and situation and sorrows and problems.  One can read the Psalm literally and historical-critically and have them make perfect sense without reference to Christ.  However Psalm 69 is frequently quoted throughout the New Testament and is used as one of the prophetic psalms of the suffering servant of God.  It is used in the New Testament as a prophecy about and testimony to the Messiah.  The Psalm is interpreted as applying not to David but to the Lord’s Christ.  This is a Christological interpretation of the Psalm.  The verse is not being taken out of context, as many modern scholars might argue, for I think St. Paul uses the verse because he wants the reader to call to mind the entire Psalm.  He is not proof text, but rather using a verse to call to mind a large context.   By referring the verse to Christ, he is referring the entire Psalm to Christ – to interpret the Psalm and to reveal the Christ.

Third, St. Paul then describes his hermeneutic – his interpretive principle in vs. 4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”   St. Paul is saying that it is not the literal meaning of the text nor its historical-critical meaning which are most important.  The ancient texts “were written for our instruction” – not mostly to record a factual history, but to shape our understanding of the present – “that we might have hope.”   The ancient scriptures were written to encourage us through our present problems and situation.  Additionally the texts were written not merely to inform us, but more to form us: not mere information, but formation and even transformation.   This of course does not deny the literal or historical meaning of the text, but only and rather says that the text has a more important meaning for us than a mere literal reading of the text can give us.  And that meaning both reveals Christ to us and is revealed by Christ to us.  David in writing Psalm 69 does not tell us the text is really about the Messiah and not about himself.  But applying the text to Christ becomes the interpretive principle which guides St. Paul.

Once again it brings to mind Christ’s own words in John John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Reading the Bible, which is an essential part of being a Christian, of being a disciple of Christ, requires us to be able to read the scriptures, to see them with apostolic eyes, and to have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). 

See also my Reading the Old Testament to Reveal the Truth

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