Some parts of the Bible are easy to understand, but some of it is not. My expectation is that most believers desire to understand all of God’s Word, not just the easy parts. This is especially critical for the biblical counselor. As those coming alongside to help others who are suffering or in sin, we need to be able to dig deeper into the Word, and make sure that we are not promising things that the Bible does not. We want to be confident that we can pull the actual truth out of the text and not just develop an arbitrary, fanciful, or incorrect interpretation.
A wise man once taught me, “A Text without Context is a Pretext for a Prooftext.” Our counselees, for the most part, have probably not ever been taught how to properly study their Bible. If that is the case, then they will be pulling verses of Scripture out of context, twisting them, and using them to meet their theological grid and framework.
The process of interpreting and grasping the Bible is similar to embarking on a journey. Reading the text thoroughly and carefully lies at the beginning of the journey. From this careful reading we become able to determine what the passage meant in the biblical context, that is, what it meant to the biblical audience. In our day much has been made of the idea that the Bible is interpreted by the reader rather than the author. This is known sometimes as a reader response (what it means to me as the reader) as contrasted to authorial intent (what did the author mean to communicate). While there are many examples of this, I think of a very personal one that might be helpful in application. For some time, I went to college thousands of miles away from my sweetheart (my now wife of 40 years – Jayne). During those times we spoke on the phone, but mostly wrote letters back and forth. And certainly, in every form of the term, these would be called love letters. As I wrote to Jayne, there were personal examples and reminisces of our time together. There was also the expectation of upcoming holidays and future times together that we discussed. I communicated with Jayne in a way that I was sure she would understand the meaning and intent of every sentence. I chose my words carefully. They were meant specifically for her in Kettering Ohio in 1976. I still have most of those letters in an old box up in the closet. If you were to read those letters, you might find them romantic, poetic, and maybe even humorous. How should you read my love letters? Should you determine for yourself what they mean to you or should you carefully determine what I meant to say to Jayne when I wrote them. It is my settled conviction that we must look at Scripture through the intent of the author, and what he meant to the original audience to which he was writing. That is the first step.
Then we can look at what it means to cross the bridge from their time and their town, and possibly their covenant, to the new covenant, Christ, and to us. This interpretive bridge is crucial to our understanding of the Scripture.
While I will not take time in this short blog article to expand on proper exegetical technique, my encouragement is clear to biblical counselors – we must not be sloppy with the living Word of God. Those who are suffering and in sin will come to us because they trust us and trust that we have the answers to help them at this specific point of their lives. We biblical counselors are committed to the sufficiency of Scripture in the cure and care of souls. And if our commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture is complete, we must also be committed to the proper study and exegetical work required to properly understand the Scriptures.
There is no room for guesswork. It is a sometimes arduous task, but a task that must be done. I pray that we never be slothful when handling of the Word of God as we bring it to bear in the lives of those people whom God has entrusted to our care.