As Christians we are called to love our God with all of our being (Duet. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). This imperative carries with it a responsibility towards God’s Word. We must demonstrate our love for God’s Word in the way we approach it in both study and in application.
In the right context and with the proper definition, believers must be both critical and open-minded when it comes to reading the Scriptures.
Does this sound dangerous to suggest such a proposition? Or, on the flip side, is there a danger if believers do not read the Scriptures with a critical and open mind?
Over the last several weeks on Sunday mornings, the teens at my church have begun walking through the Abrahamic narrative. Hopefully we will finish our study in April. I have personally enjoyed reviewing what has been for me a life-changing portion of Scripture. When I was in seminary I was privileged to take a Hebrew exegesis class that worked specifically through the Abrahamic narrative. Dr. Tom Keiser encouraged and prodded us to read the Text with both a critical eye as well as an open mind. He was not encouraging us to doubt Scripture or to read our personal interpretations into the Text. Rather, he was challenging us to read the Text both (1) with an eye for capturing the “flags” of importance that can be fairly obvious through careful reading and (2) without reading into the story our traditions and/or applications that we may have previously applied to it. This approach would mean that I should read the true account as if I had never heard of Abraham—as if all I knew of God’s working in history was Genesis 1-11. At first I was somewhat critical (no pun intended) of his approach. However, at the end of the semester, I was thankful for and more confident in the reality that God’s Word and His Spirit are completely sufficient to reveal the truths that we are to learn and apply to our lives.
When I hear the word “critical,” I normally think of someone with an unloving spirit and a sarcastic comment—someone who I would not want to be around or be on the receiving end of their critique! However, when it comes to critical thinking, we understand the word to mean the careful, thoughtful and well-informed application of what someone is learning. This is how we want to use the word “critical” in reference to our studying of God’s Word. We ought to read through these the familiar biblical stories with an appreciation for the way in which God worked through the biblical authors to form and present His Word. Gaining an appreciation for the various stylistic tendencies, certain recurring themes, differing cultural practices, and other ways in which the writer highlighted what he wanted us as reader to see as the main point is very helpful. However, in order to study the various stylistic tendencies within the true stories of God’s Word, the English reader does not have to have a comprehensive understanding of the original languages in order to properly understand God’s Word. Aren’t you (and I) thankful!
That being said, since we are far removed from the cultures and historical settings in which the Old and New Testaments were originally recorded, we do well to observe the various “highlighting” techniques that the authors used to make clear to us as readers what their main points are in these stories. One of the easiest techniques to observe is that of repetition. We see this often in the Abrahamic narrative as various words, or phrases, or even actions recur throughout the story. One of the ways in which we learn is by repetition, whether we are learning math, history, or even various skills in sports. Especially for the Hebrew authors, repetition was a key ingredient in how they got their main points across.
In the same way I normally respond to the word “critical” I also respond to the phrase “open-minded.” Those who are open-minded towards Scripture many times allow whatever they perceive as truth to become their interpretation. However, just as with “critical,” there is another definition to “open-minded.” As we come to Scripture, we must be willing to let the Scriptures stand up for themselves. In other words, we must realize that the Author’s intended meaning can be found within the passages of Scripture alone. We must not superimpose our interpretations of a passage upon it before we read it. We would never do this with a modern-day novel and such should definitely not take place with God’s inerrant Word.
If we did not believe that the truth of God’s Word can be found, then we could have a critical spirit towards it and approach its pages with an open-mindedness that pervades much of the unbelieving world today. However, in the context of faith in God’s Word, we as believers should be critical or carefully thoughtful in how we approach the Text. Also, when it comes to interpreting the Text, we should not automatically come with our theological pie-charts, presupposed applications, etc. but rather come with open hearts, souls, and minds to receive the spiritual nutrients of God’s Word. We should indeed formulate a theology that is consistent with Scripture. However, our theological conclusions are to be the end result of studying the Text and not a prerequisite or filter by which we study and/or apply the Scripture at the outset.
We should desire God to blow apart our theological boxes if that’s what His Word indeed may do instead of trying to fit His Word into a preconceived theological lockbox.
Much better would it be to have an unusually shaped container that accurately secures its contents than a perfectly dovetailed and streamlined container on the outside with shattered contents inside.
God’s Word is a joy to study because He has fashioned His Word of truth to us in a way that is both beautiful and masterful in its arrangement and yet powerful and authoritative because of His Authorship. Through His Word, a young child can understand the truths of God and yet an aged scholar can still be enraptured in a lifetime of mining its rich treasures. God allowed his Word to be recorded in certain forms (or genres) in order to achieve His overall function (or purpose).
Understanding the form of God’s Word aids the believer in determining its function as we properly apply it to life.
In the context of interpreting Scripture, and within the applicable definitions, we as believers must be both critical and open-minded. In so doing, we will understand the form in which God’s Word is presented and will embrace its function as well through application. With such a perspective, by God’s grace working through the illuminating ministry of His Holy Spirit, we will be “workmen” who are fulfilling God’s imperative to “rightly divide” His “Word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).