One of the first truths emphasized by the Earth Sciences such as Geology is the importance of layers. In general, younger layers of rock and soil are always on top of older layers. The order and type of those layers tell a story of time. Where I live the layers tell a story of prairies and glaciers. The Bible is also understood through its layers.
Those layers in the Bible consist of context, original purpose and audience, genre, and something called hermeneutic. Understanding these and properly applying them prevents us from abusing God’s Word and helps us hear what God is speaking.
The layer of context is made up of even more layers. To understand a verse we need to read the verses around it. That near context informs our understanding. For instance, taking Ephesians 5:22 out its near context – “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22, NASB95) – we arrive at the wrong conclusion of what the husband and wife relationship should be like. But if the near context is considered we find that God intends a harmony of humility between husband and wife. Other layers of context include the section, the book, the testament, the whole of the Bible, and God’s overarching story of redemption.
If our understanding of a verse violates or seems contradictory to any of these contexts then we may need to reconsider our understanding of that verse. But context is only one of the layers. Sometimes other layers help us properly reconcile these seeming contradictions.
Each book of the Bible was written to a certain audience and a particular purpose. Considering the original audiences, their place in history, their culture, and the issues facing them also reveals meaning. For example, Jesus famous parable of the Good Samaritan would have shocked and scandalized the original Jewish audience. In their view, it was more likely for the robbers to be Samaritans than the generous rescuer. Knowing that enhances our understanding.
Another layer is the genre. We consider the letters of Paul in one light, the Psalms in another, the Parables of Jesus as pointed stories. Included within genre is the consideration of who is speaking within the text and why. In the histories, there are many examples of someone speaking something other than God’s word. A certain serpent comes to mind for example.
The Bible also contains genre which are not common today. Specifically the prophetic and apocalyptic writings. These writings are often steeped in symbolism and duality of meaning. Some of the prophesies, such as those found in Isaiah and Daniel, seem to have both a timely local message and a future aimed prophetic message. There is an interpretive principle which helps us avoid pouring unintended meanings into the prophetic writings. That principle is called sticking to the “main and plain.” In short, we understand the harder to grasp passages through those verses which are more plainly understood.
Concerning the future revealing books of Revelation and parts of Daniel I offer this warning. The enemy of our souls would love to side-track us into worrying about the future. Whether that is the needs of tomorrow or the resolution of yet to be fulfilled prophecies. I used to waste a good deal of energy worrying about getting Christ’s second coming right. Participating in the second coming is not determined by “getting it right” but by accepting Christ and doing the stuff of God’s kingdom. The bottom line is that Jesus is returning. When, how, and in what order is a needless distraction. We are to look forward but never to the exclusion of the harvest field or the work of the kingdom.
Study theology long enough and you encounter the strange word of hermeneutic. This is something we all have but rarely call by name. Our hermeneutic is the preconceptions we hold and the approach we take when we read anything, including the Bible. To what degree do we read the Bible literally or figuratively? What role do ancient culture and modern culture play as we read? Is there a specific theological camp which colors our understanding? Some of these preconceptions we’ve chosen and others we have gained through exposure. The important thing here is to understand that we have these preconceptions.
In the long run, no one hermeneutic is 100% right. God will not let us put Him into a box and forces us to stretch beyond our comfort. It is also possible to hold more than one hermeneutic at a time. We can read the Bible with literal and figurative and reformed and kingdom-based and redemptive points of view all at the same time. We will look more closely at this tension-filled method in our next article. It is, however, important to consider what preconceptions we hold and be humble enough to let God change them.
The purpose for knowing these layers is to read the Bible for what it says. To let the main and plain of context and purpose inform our understanding. But to also discern how our preconceptions are coloring our understanding as we read in God’s Word.