Taking the Bible on Its Own Terms

by Ronald D. Worden

Dr. Worden is academic dean and professor of Bible at Houston Graduate School of Theology in Texas.

This article appeared in the Christian Century September 12-19,1984, p.832. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A full appreciation of the Bible with all its resonances will emerge from a combination of approaches to it. The biblical scholar cannot avoid the question, “What does it mean for me?” For the answer he or she will need some knowledge of the lay world — but also of the world within which the Bible and the first Christian communities took shape.

One who reads the Bible and takes it seriously may very well be surprised by what he or she finds in it. This is as true of the evangelical Christian who claims to heed the Bible as it is of the person who for some reason may think of it as an antiquated and irrelevant book. The latter needs to reinvestigate the Bible, but the former is apt to neglect some important matters that would help in understanding and appreciating it. The scholar and the layperson may read or hear the same lesson but receive very different messages from it. To the extent that this is not just the result of differences in personal growth or idiosyncrasy, it is worth considering ways to bring the two perspectives closer together.

Such differences were set out in bold relief for me in a recent midweek service in another state. The pastor led a Bible study on Belshazzar’s Feast (Daniel, chapter 5). He read the story from the Bible and asked for comments on its meaning. I ventured the suggestion that its significance lay in the judgment on those who had desecrated the sacred temple vessels. Others quickly turned the discussion to what that means for us: people are sacred vessels, to be kept holy, respected and honored as God’s vessels and instruments (compare II Tim. 2:20-21). One concern was expressed about ministry to children, and the too-frequent tendency to neglect these sacred vessels. Perhaps the intuitive sense of spiritual people moved swiftly to a valid application of the biblical passage to contemporary life. But remarkably little was actually said about the Daniel story and it biblical context. I was amazed at how an allegorical interpretation -- of which I find no hint in the passage -- flowed spontaneously from the reading and hearing of the story.

Certainly we must ask the question, “How does the biblical passage apply to me?” But the answer will be much more satisfying if our study includes careful methods of analysis and interpretation, with due regard to the historical and literary contexts and the genre being used. A good beginning is made when we just take some things in the Bible at face value.

Biblical authors themselves exhibit a sense of historical perspective. Jeremiah regards the old, Mosaic covenant as broken, and sets his hope for the restoration of God’s people on a “new covenant” (Jer. 31:31-34). Matthew calls attention to a temporal distinction with his formula for the formal quotation of prophecy as fulfilled by Jesus: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:22; cf. 2:5, 17; 3:3, etc.). And there are historical annotations of interest, such as the reference to the Book of Jashar (Josh. 10:13) or to the “men of Hezekiah” who copied out Solomonic proverbs (Prov. 25:1).

There are now many aids for historical study of the Bible available, and there is probably very little responsible biblical scholarship in commentaries and the like that does not pay some attention to the matter of historical context. More difficult problems arise in areas where there is controversy about which of two or more explanations of the historical situation may be correct.

The fundamentalist who excludes the possibility of fictive literary genres on principle will set the Book of Daniel in the historical situation of the sixth century B.C. Others will see in the story problems and conflicts under Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius a rather thinly disguised account of problems under the Seleucids in the second century, particularly under Antiochus. It thus becomes an elaborate cryptogram -- perhaps the only form of protest available to an oppressed people. It is a question not of whether to consider the historical context, but rather of what counts as historical evidence and of what kinds of possibilities one will allow for in using the evidence to re-create the historical situation. If the real task is to get the ordinary reader of the Bible to think in terms of a historical context, the fine points of such historical controversies may be of limited value. And yet one must not give up the effort to make sense of the larger picture.

To get the ordinary reader of the Bible to think about the meaning of the text, attention to the literary context is of particular importance. There are some simple things that can be said about the place within a biblical book where we find a statement, and its relationship to other parts of the book and to the rest of the Bible. This literary context usually has connections with the immediate context (paragraph or section), and with more remote parts of the book.

(a) The sentence. Each biblical statement is a sentence which must be understood in terms of the vocabulary and grammar of its original language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek), but the better modern translations, such as the Revised Standard Version, have made it possible for one who understands English vocabulary and grammar to read and study the Bible without being seriously misled on most points. Complete biblical thoughts come in the form of sentences, which may or may not coincide with the verse divisions.

(b) The paragraph or stanza. Many books in the Bible, though composite works with many parts or kinds of material, are clearly intended to be understood as unities or wholes. The epistle is a unified statement, though perhaps complex or composite. From the perspective of the complete books as coherent statements, one will regard not the sentence but the paragraph (or the equivalent for poetry, the stanza) as the basic unit of thought. Single sentences are to be understood as stating, elaborating or illustrating the point of the paragraph. The common habit of using the Bible by concentrating on one verse at a time (which may or may not be a complete sentence) is at best a very slow, plodding way to get at the author’s main points, rather like playing dominoes or checkers at the rate of one or two moves per day or per week, and at worst a fragmentation and distortion. In a book like Romans, the argument is presented point by point from paragraph to paragraph.

In exceptional cases, there is no clear paragraph or stanza division. Most of Proverbs, for example, consists of separate, independent sentences. There is hardly any more sense of “context” to be had in reading through chapter 11 than in merely selecting sentences at random from the entire section. In this case the best approach is to study the proverbs in some topical arrangement.

(c) Context within the complete book. Each sentence and each paragraph must be understood as a contribution to the sense of a complete book, such as the Book of Jeremiah or the Gospel According to Matthew. It must be understood as a part of the whole and for what it adds to the plan and purpose of that book. Its position within a good analytical outline of the book, usually the result of conclusions drawn after careful analysis, is a guide. To take a fairly obvious example, the lines “Behold, God will not reject a blameless man, / nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:20) sound like pretty good biblical teaching -- which they would be, in other contexts and properly qualified. But their meaning is considerably altered when they are read as part of Bildad’s first speech and an implied indictment of Job.

(d) Materials and components of books. Even here, where the form critic may begin to see a place for his craft emerging, there are some basic things to be said. The distinction between poetry and prose is fundamental. Poetry is to be found not only in Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon but elsewhere also, notably in the prophetic books. Isaiah, apart from chapters 36 to 39 (narrative duplicated in II Kings 18:13-20:19), is about 86 per cent poetry (1,037 verses out of 1,202 as printed in the RSV), as is a considerable portion of most of the other prophetic books. It goes without saying that the Psalms must be understood according to the canons of poetry, in which the point is often not to convey information or to argue grammatically and logically, but rather to express feelings of longing or anguish, adoration or revulsion through imagery, the juxtaposition of images and ideas, crescendos and climaxes of intensity. Psalm 19 is a case in point. It shows how the study of the Law is superior to the compelling attractions of any religion centered in the worship of nature (i.e., the nature deities of Israel’s neighbors, the sun god, storm god, etc.) with a hymn celebrating the manifestation of God in nature (as his creation) in the first six verses, counterbalanced by verses which praise the Mosaic Law as God’s revelation of his will (vv. 7-11) and a concluding prayer (vv. 12-14). (Compare Bernard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today [Westminster, 1974], pp. 107-110.)

Many kinds of material have been identified in the Bible: oracles in the prophetic books (as well as reports of visions and symbolic actions), laws (general laws, case-by-case laws), wisdom sayings (proverbs, numerical sayings), and so forth. Among many kinds of psalms, the royal psalms are particularly notable for the way they blend the pageantry of the ancient monarchy (compare the coronation psalm, Psalm 2, and the royal wedding ode, Psalm 45) with emerging messianic expectations. Evangelical Christians have been slow to appreciate the value of such systems of classification because they have seemed in this century to be the domain of “form critics,” whose views on historical criticism of the Bible were suspect. But it is important to appreciate the distinction between a system of classification and the naïve or skeptical views which may accompany it. If one really wants to take the Bible seriously, then one must take it on its own terms, that is, see it for what it really is.

An inductive, empirical approach in a field such as anatomy would certainly demand more than that each new student start from scratch, with only such general observations as that people come with parts such as heads, thoraxes, loins, thighs, hearts, kidneys, spleens and an assortment of tubes. One hopes that his or her doctor has been thoroughly versed in a functions-and-systems approach to the human body and can deal with the various bodily interworkings, whether respiratory, digestive, reproductive or circulatory. The same kind of thinking is useful in study of the Bible.

Specific kinds of biblical material have been shaped for specific purposes and are best understood in terms of those uses. If someone says, “How are you?’’ in everyday conversation (not in the doctor’s office), a response which sounds like a medical report fits the apparent literal sense of the question, but misses the point entirely. Deliberate nonresponsive comments of that sort are the stuff of jokes, or of evasive noncommunication. The lament psalms, too, are not what they may seem on the surface. They usually have a section which expresses trust (e.g., Ps. 3:3-6; 4:8; 5:3-7, etc.), and serves a different purpose than, say, David’s elegy on the death of Saul and Jonathan (II Sam. 1:17-27). They are forms for prayer, probably used in the temple with the guidance of a priest by persons in distress. The generalized wording of the lament psalm enables such worshipers to approach God at a time when they may be too moved emotionally to formulate their own petitions.

A full appreciation of the Bible with all of its resonances will emerge from a combination of approaches to it. The biblical scholar who hopes to gain the layperson’s ear cannot avoid the question, “What does it mean for me?” For the answer he or she will need some knowledge of the lay world -- but also of the world within which the Bible and the first Christian communities took shape. Above all, anyone who wishes to take the Bible seriously, whether as a guide for living or as one of the monuments of culture, must understand it first of all on its own terms. That means that it must be understood as a collection of literature reflecting the life of a people. The genres of material within it must be understood for what they are and for what that implies about the limitations as well as the richness of their meaning. Any doctrinal statement on the inspiration and authority of Scripture is dependent on a careful analysis and interpretation of these genres.

To skip those steps is to treat the Bible more as a flag to be elevated and saluted than as a document to be understood or as an actual guide for living. If we Christians mean what we say about respect for the Bible, then we are bound to understand it in as many ways as we can.