I have just finished a very helpful book called Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Randolph Richardson and Brandon O’Brien. The authors show how people often impose their own values and assumptions on the Bible without realizing it.
For example, we in contemporary America are very focused on time and, by extension, chronology. The biblical authors seem to be much less focused on chronology. Rarely do they tell us how much time went by between events. And sometimes they seem to juggle the order of events to make a point. Richardson and O’Brien suggest that, if we could ask them about this, the biblical authors would cheerfully acknowledge it and not see any problem. This is a place where our value system and the value system of the biblical authors simply differs.
Richardson and O’Brien don’t elaborate on this point at much length, but what they suggest is distinguishing two ways of reading the Bible. Interpretation means trying to figure out what the biblical authors meant on their own terms. To do this effectively, we have to bracket out our own cultural assumptions as much as possible. Application, by contrast, is reflecting on what a passage means for me, in my own context. Application is like translating an interpretation into a form that is culturally relevant.
A small shift in our language could, it seems to me, make a big difference in our Bible studies. We could talk about what we think a passage means (interpretation, where our assumptions are bracketed). And, as a second question, we could then ask how it applies to each of us. That would give us a common understanding of what the passage means, with a potentially wide range of applications to the personal circumstances of each one of us. That leaves the Spirit room to speak through words that we claim are living and active, but it also keeps intact the integrity of the words themselves.
None of this was entirely new to me. But these authors do a nice job of articulating some of the complexities of biblical interpretation and application. I am grateful to them for that!