What's Wrong with the Way You Read the Bible?
As inductive Bible study instructors Duvall and Hays (2012) observe in Grasping God's Word, “[B]iblical illiteracy seems to be commonplace within our circles” (p. 16). In other words, the authors saw that readers of the Bible—particularly their own students—were getting overloaded with Scripture they did not properly understand before being called upon to interpret and apply Scripture in their studies, their lives, and their ministries.
The authors also confronted a post-modern trend toward interpretation that Kevin J. Vanhoozer describes in his foreword as a “power struggle in which the reader imposes or forces his or her will on the text” (p. 9). Without a schooled approach to reading and understanding, Vanhoozer explains, “it is all too easy to read our own ideas and prejudices into the text” (p. 9).
In response, Duvall and Hays developed their book, Grasping God’s Word, “to help serious believers... learn how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible” (p. 17), with a main focus on learning how to read the Bible before trying to interpret or apply it.
As Mark L. Strauss implies in his foreword to the text, many students need first learn the basics of literary interpretation before they can apply those basics to interpretation of Scripture. In that effort, Duvall and Hays lay out their hands-on approach to reading and understanding the Bible, explaining that “a logical organization would begin with theory before moving to practice” (p. 17).
However, as instructors, the authors apply their real-world observations of student learning styles to their learning material outline. Because the majority of individuals learn better in a tactile environment, relying more on practice than on theory, the authors present their approach to reading and application through “the abundant use of biblical examples and hands-on assignments... to involve students in the nitty-gritty of biblical interpretation” (p. 17).
In this manner, the Word of God becomes tangible in the hands of students, to be touched and examined piece by piece.
Furthermore, the introductory materials also present subtle shifts in perspectives as the authors consider the content of their own instructional material over time. Between the prefaces to the second and third editions, Duvall and Hays’ mission shifts from teaching readers how to “apply the Bible [to your life]” (p. 14), moving toward teaching readers how to “apply your life to the Bible” (p. 15).
After all, considering the subject matter is the inspired Word of God, as the authors state in their first preface, “This is not to suggest that the Bible is nothing more than an object to be analyzed or scrutinized” (p. 17). As the authors explain in the preface to the newest edition, “We have not changed our view of the Bible, but we increasingly find value in thinking more about how we adjust to God and his ways rather than putting ourselves at the center in even the most subtle of ways” (p. 13).
This shift in the authors’ attitudes indicates a revealing, ongoing work of God in maturing the spiritual perspectives of even seasoned spiritual instructors as they seek to mature the understanding of their students.
In that effort, Duvall and Hays present a dual-purposed method of study that supplies a practical, hands-on approach to both the academic student and to the serious Bible reader in general. Specifically, the authors seek to equip students to apply their reading of the Bible to their intellectual development and academic understanding. More broadly, the authors seek to lead serious readers through a Spirit-filled internalization of the true and self-evident meaning of the Word of God in hopes “God will use the new edition to deepen your walk with him” (p. 15).
As Strauss points out in his foreword, when discussing study of the Bible, we are not simply approaching a study of historical events and factual data. We are examining the “self-revelation of God, inspired by his Spirit and teaching us his ways in the past so we can live for him in the present” (p. 12).
In Vanhoozer’s foreword, the introductory materials reach closer to the heart of Duvall and Hays’ work, explaining, “It is not enough merely to grasp God’s Word intellectually to make sense of it. No, we need to grasp God’s Word practically to make use of it... This is the true end of biblical interpretation: to know as we are known” (p. 10).
Therefore, throughout Grasping God's Word, Duvall and Hays describe a five-part model they call the “Interpretive Journey.”
This journey begins with Step 1, focusing on the question, “What did the text mean to the biblical audience?” (p. 42). In other words, we begin by looking at a biblical passage in the context of the ancient peoples for whom it was originally written, taking into account the time, place, and circumstances under which it was written.
We also look at how a passage relates to the preceding and following passages to summarize what God was telling His people at that time, in that place, under those circumstances.
In Step 2, we move to the question, “What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?” (p. 42). Here, we specify those contextual barriers that might prevent us from hearing the biblical message exactly the same way the original audience heard it. In other words, as Duvall and Hays put it, we look at the “width of the river” (p. 42) we need to cross to reach understanding.
For example, between ancient Hebrews and modern Americans, we observe many differences in cultures, customs, and circumstances. Furthermore, Christians today read the Bible knowing that Christ is the Messiah—some pretty significant pre-knowledge the ancient audience was lacking. These differences can prejudice our view of biblical times and skew our understanding of God’s Word to us.
With that awareness, as Duvall and Hays explain, once we identify what the text meant to the biblical audience and how we differ from that audience, we look naturally to the question of Step 3, “What is the theological principle in this text?” (p. 43). In other words, what is God telling His people today through the Word given to His people thousands of years ago?
This, as the authors explain, involves looking for “any similarities between the situation of the biblical audience and our situation” (p. 44). More often than not, the basic human condition reflected in Scripture remains the same as the human condition we face today, transcending time and space to present a principle we can apply to our lives and situations. Therefore, the authors provide a set of guidelines to develop theological principles from a given passage. Duvall and Hays state that such a principle should “be reflected in the text... be timeless and not tied to a specific situation... not be culturally bound... correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture... [and] be relevant to both the biblical and the contemporary audience” (p. 45).
From there, Duvall and Hays direct us to build on those guidelines using the Step 4 question: “How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?” (p. 45). This step calls upon us to compare and contrast our understanding of one principle against the broader understanding of the over-arching principles found throughout the entire Scriptural text.
When we internalize a big-picture, God’s-eye view of the whole Bible contents, we have access to a vast repository of Spirit-led references and cross-references to determine whether our understanding of a particular principle aligns with God’s overall principles.
Finally, once we identify a theological principle and discern its validity against other theological principles, we move to the ultimate question of application, presented in Step 5: “How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?” (p. 46).
Here, we synthesize everything gleaned from Steps 1-4 to develop transferable learning that we can implement directly from a passage of ancient Scripture into our own present, personal lives with God. This is learning from the past at its best. When we look at God’s interactions with His ancient peoples and see how their situations relate to ours, we can infer God’s interactions with us today and adjust accordingly.