Last year I asked Gerald Bray—Research Professor at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and director of research for the Latimer Trust—a few basic questions about biblical interpretation. I thought the exchange might be helpful to reprint here.
What are the questions we should ask when approaching a passage of Scripture?
The first question we must ask of every biblical text is simply this—what does it tell us about God? What does it say about who he is and about what he does?
The second question is: what does this text say about us human beings? What are we meant to be and what has gone wrong?
The third and final question is: what has God done about this and what does he expect of us in the light of what he has done?
Asking these questions and seeking answers to them will help us interpret the Spirit’s message to Christ’s people and to each of us as individuals.
What about sections of Scripture that seem hard to apply? I’m thinking, for example, of the genealogies of 1 Chronicles.
These genealogies bring us a message from God even if they appear on the surface to be barren and unprofitable. All we have to do in order to understand them is to ask the right questions about them and their meaning will be quickly opened up to us.
Let me ask you, then, to answer the three questions you posed above. What do they teach us about God?
They tell us that he is a faithful God, who keeps his covenant from one generation to another. Whoever we are and however far we may be from the source of our human life in Adam, we are part of his plan. Over the centuries we may have developed in different ways, lost contact with one another and even turned on each other in hostility, but in spite of all that we are still related to one another and interconnected in ways that may go beyond our immediate understanding or experience.
What do they tell us about ourselves?
They say that most of us are nobodies from the world’s point of view. We live and die in a long chain of humanity but there is not much that anyone will remember of us as individuals. At the same time, without us, future generations will not be born and the legacy of the past will not be preserved. We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, a long chain of faithful people who have lived for God in the place where he put them. Even if we know little about them we owe them a great debt of gratitude for their loyalty and perseverance when they had little or nothing to gain from it or to show for it.
What do they tell us about God’s dealings with us?
They tell us that we too are called to be obedient and to keep the faith we have inherited, passing it on undiminished to the next generation. They tell us that there is a purpose in our calling that goes beyond ourselves. Even if we are not glorified and leave little for posterity to remember us by, we shall nevertheless have made an indispensable contribution to the purposes of God in human history.