Have you ever stopped to think about why we study God’s word? Apart from getting to know God and his character and becoming more like Christ, why do meaning and significance matter?

The first thing that was evident when I watched the SATS panel discussion on Responsible Bible Interpretation was that the panelists all share a love for God’s word. We love God and the good news that Jesus and the Bible bring, and we want to share that news with others; but we are also deeply appreciative of the way God’s living word contributes to our own lives. We hide it in our hearts (Psalm 119:11) and digest and reflect on its wisdom during our time here on earth, allowing it to guide us and be “a lamp to [our] feet.” (Psalm 119:105)

In addition to love, respect and responsibility permeated the discussion. We study, grapple with, and seek to understand the Bible because of a responsibility towards God, his word, and the truth thereof, but also because we’re mindful of our responsibility to one another. Our understanding not only impacts how we share the good news of Jesus Christ, but also how we respond to the people around us.

We desire to serve God, the Church, and each other well, and God’s word and the Holy Spirit are our greatest tools and guides for doing that. Our interpretation of the word has an enormous impact on how we live our lives—and so it should.

An obvious question when it comes to interpreting the Bible is whether it’s necessary to be a biblical scholar in order to read the text responsibly, and the answer to this is a resounding “No!” There’s a difference between being well versed and reading responsibly, and the latter applies to each and every one of us, whether we are new to the Christian faith or have already studied God’s word in depth.

Understanding the ancient languages in which the text was originally written is certainly a huge help in delving deeper into its meaning—we all benefit from the work of those who have these skills. And being aware of the nuances of a new language or translation is important in our ability to reach people all over the world. The words that are used and the way in which they are used contribute to our understanding; but reading the Bible responsibly goes beyond just the text on the page.

When we read, we need to be aware of context, too. Any text, including the Bible, has historical, literary, sociocultural, economic, and political context. It’s important to think about the recipient, and the author’s intended meaning for that recipient; the “lie of the land” at the time a letter was written; the norms and traditions at the time; and so forth.

Lastly, we need to be aware of what we bring with us when we approach the word of God. I love what one of the panelists said: “We don’t read in a vacuum.” As fallible and imperfect human beings, we bring our own motivations, theories, and baggage to the table. I know I am guilty of this at times: I am sometimes so intent on receiving an answer to my question or guidance for my problem that I’m not receptive to what God is trying to teach me.

All these things influence how we read the Bible, and the key to reading responsibly is awareness. Are there words I don’t understand? Is there a backstory I’m not aware of? Do I need to reach out to a trusted leader or learned colleague? If we can ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in our understanding of text, context, and ourselves, then we are much less likely to irresponsibly impose our own desires and opinions on God’s message.

Isn’t it wonderful that God’s word is living? Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and active.” It isn’t static, and it doesn’t become obsolete. There is always more to discover, no matter how familiar we may be with it. Not only have I noticed how I can read the same verse or passage at two different times and learn something different from it each time, but it’s been interesting to see that my friends’ favorite verses don’t match my own, and their interpretation of a passage may differ from mine. Discussing God’s word with others gives me fresh perspectives and adds to my understanding.

Apart from not reading in a vacuum, we also don’t live in a vacuum. We live in community with those around us, and we shouldn’t forget that we can learn from each other. God is way bigger than our human understanding, and he can use any one of us for his glory, from a biblical scholar to an illiterate child.

  • If you’d like to learn more about text, context, and reading responsibly, consider watching the full panelist discussion (found here) or contacting SATS for further information.
  • If there are passages you’re grappling with, you may find a related blog article on approaching challenging texts helpful: Find it here.

Short Bio: Carrie Milton is a veterinarian and language practitioner. After completing her Bachelor of Veterinary Science and working with a variety of animals for a number of years, she reawakened her love for the written word. Accredited by the Professional Editors’ Guild, she has tried her hand at everything from theses to fiction