When discussing how to understand the Bible, you have to start at the beginning: how do we get at the meaning of the text? Postmodernism and reader-interpretation approaches argue that we have no access to the original or fixed meaning of the author. All we have is our construction or interpretation of the text. Lawrence disagrees. He argues that we can find the meaning of the text, at least most of the time, by using the grammatical-historical method:
Discerning the meaning of the text in this way immediately plunges us into an exploration and study of the grammar, syntax, and literary and historical context of the words we’re reading--thus the phrase: grammatical-historical method….
So the first step of exegesis is to read the text, the whole text, over and over again. Interpretation actually begins with the whole, not the part. Then, in the context of the whole, we work backwards through the parts, back to sentences, back all the way down to individual words….
Distinct genres tend to have distinct rules or patterns for communicating. We intuitively recognize this. On the whole, poetry doesn’t even look like a newspaper article. That’s because poetry and narrative are different genres, with their own unique set of internal rules. These rules and patterns have a real bearing on the meaning of the words and sentences the author writes….The entire Bible is true, and it all needs to be read literally, but reading the legal statutes in Exodus literally is going to look different than reading the poetry of Psalm 17 literally.
- Narrative - Understanding this genre involves considering the plot, characters, chronology, setting, and audience. Lawrence says “context is king.” Why is this story being told? How does it relate to other stories in the Bible? It is important to get the details of the story right, but also to remember the main themes and the plot so we do not elevate details (like the fact that David picked up five stones before fighting Goliath) above the meaning of the whole story.
- Parable - “Fundamentally, a parable is a pictorial comparison between something familiar and known and a spiritual truth or reality. The picture is typically fictional, though realistic. They are not generally allegorical, even when various parts of the picture represent various spiritual truths. Many times the details just add vividness to the picture.” (pg. 46) Consider the main point of the parable, which usually comes at the end. Look for repetition. Consider the context.
- Poetry - “Poetry in any language is intended not only to communicate truth but also to evoke emotions.” (pg. 46) It is important to remember that the imagery used in the Psalms, for example, is not meant to be scientific. Often it is not meant to be literal either - rather it expresses truth about God and ourselves, especially of our own emotions, through pictures and images.
- Wisdom - This literature “speaks of what is generally true, but it also addresses what appear to be the exceptions to general truth.” (pg. 47) Again, the main points of the wisdom literature are clear: fear, honor, and love God, do what is right. But the nuance of what is said depends in part on the kind of sub-genre: drama, sayings, personal confession, or admonition.
- Prophecy - The defining feature of this genre is “the presence of the prophetic oracle-- ‘Thus says the Lord’--and the function these oracles play in Scripture.” There is a promise-fulfillment dynamic at play. But it can be difficult to understand because there may be multiple levels of fulfillment at different points in time. Lawrence uses the analogy of a mountain range. When seen from a distance, all the mountains seem adjacent. But as you get closer, you realize there is distance between one mountain range and the next. The Apocalyptic genre shares ambiguous chronology.
- Epistles - These are the most straightforward because they are written to Christians explicitly to instruct them on how to live. Context is still critical. These letters were often written to address problems or misunderstandings in the early church. It is important to keep in mind that the Apostles saw themselves as “the recipients of and fulfillment of the Old Testament promises in light of what Christ had done.” That means we have to understand the Old Testament if we are going to understand the context surrounding the topics and terms discussed by the Apostles.
- Apocalyptic - Lawrence says this genre is the most difficult and the most intriguing. It is also where people get into the most trouble if they read it as literal narrative, epistle, or prophecy. It can certainly have elements of those things but “[t]he point and purpose of apocalyptic literature is to give God’s people hope in the midst of present sufferings based on God’s certain victory over their enemies, both now and in the future.” (pg. 50) Imagery is critical in apocalyptic writing - things like plagues, trumpets, horns, etc.
Reading thematically also helps us understand why things happen. Was physically healing the point of Jesus’ ministry? No. “by healing lepers and lame men, Jesus wasn’t just proving how powerful he was; he was showing us what he had come to do--not make our bodies well, but to make our hearts clean, and so bring us back into a relationship with God.” (pg. 52)
Chapter 2: Biblical Theology Tools 1: Covenants, Epochs, and Canon
Lawrence argues there are three “horizons” of God’s self-revelation in Scripture: “the textual horizon, the epochal horizon,” and the canonical horizon.” (pg. 55) These horizons help us relate the meaning of particular stories, prophecies, or books to the broader context of Scripture.
An example of the textual horizon would be studying the story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David and relating it to the rest of David’s life. Certainly we can focus in on the details of the rebellion, what happens, who is involved, and how it plays out, but when we step back we notice more of what it means. We see that it is a fulfillment of prophecy made by Nathan that, because David dishonored God by murdering Uriah and committing adultery with Bathsheba, trouble would come out of his own house.
It should also remind us of how God raised David up as king to replace Saul, who also sinned and had the kingdom taken from his hand and given to another. Unlike Saul, however, David was a man after God’s own heart and we see his deep repentance in Psalm 51 and in the rest of his life.
The epochal horizon reminds us of where David fits in God’s work with Israel. He lives under the Mosaic law in the promised land. He is one of the first human kings over God’s people. There is still hope of God dwelling among his people - hence David’s desire to build God a temple. Yet sin still reigns. Sacrifices are still necessary and even the king, the man after God’s own heart, fails repeatedly. Though some of God’s promises have been fulfilled, the serpent from the Garden of Eden has not been crushed.
The canonical horizon captures the entire sweeping story of redemption. It involves looking back at David’s life, and the Old Testament more broadly, and interpreting it in light of Jesus Christ. Now David is important as a type of Christ, a foreshadowing. Christ is the perfect king coming out of David’s line. He does what David could not: live sinlessly, atone for his people’s sin, defeat Satan and death.
Chapter 3: Biblical Theology Tools 2: Prophecy, Typology, and Continuity
Lawrence delves more deeply into the kinds of tools needed for understanding the Bible well. He discusses the ideas of “multiple horizons of prophetic fulfillment,” typology, continuity and discontinuity, and errors of interpretation to avoid.
As I mentioned earlier, often prophecies have multiple levels of fulfillment. So the passage in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” is first fulfilled not in Jesus, but in Isaiah’s son who is born after this prophecy. But of course the primary point of this passage, from a canonical perspective, is not to tell us about Isaiah’s son (or Abraham’s son), but to tell us about God’s Son, who will be called Immanuel.
And this is, is also an example of typology. God promises a child to Abraham, and a child to Isaiah, and a child to Elizabeth. The promised children here are types - they foreshadow the fulfillment or antitype. They point to the culmination of God’s blessing: Jesus Christ the promised Son of God.
The process of interpretation requires context and typology. One problem people run into is that they simply moralize whatever they are reading. David and Goliath becomes a story about the underdog winning through preparation and courage. Instead, we ought to consider the meaning of passages within their Old Testament context or time horizon, understand how it fits a certain “type” or theme when we do that, look to the fulfillment of that theme in Jesus (the antitype), and then consider what it means for us on this side of the cross and as part of God’s church.
Chapter 4: Biblical and Systematic Theology: Do we Really Need Both?
Often biblical and systematic theology are pitted against one another. Advocates of either side argue that their approach is both superior and sufficient. Yet, Lawrence argues, we need both. At the risk of oversimplifying, biblical theology helps us to know God intimately and personally. It also helps us to understand what is going on in the Bible and how to interpret it. Systematic theology provides rigor, definition, detail, and application.
I like to think of systematic theology as the borders of a puzzle - defining which Scriptural interpretations (placement of puzzle pieces) are legitimate and which are illegitimate. Biblical theology is like looking at the cover of the puzzle box to see the different elements of the picture to help us know how to group the puzzle pieces and where they fit in the overall picture.
On the other hand, if we leave things at biblical theology, we are left with a compelling story but we may have abandoned objective or “propositional” truth. There are many things that are deeply and universally true about God, Man, Sin, Salvation, and Nature that can be glossed over or distorted if we don’t think systematically about these topics. Systematic theology can help us think through thorny and complicated moral issues and situations that may not have a clear “proof-text.” Birth control, stem cell research, and how much or what kinds of media to consume are a few examples where we need a robust theology rather than a proof-text to discern what is God-honoring.
Chapter 5: Systematic Theology Tools: How and Why to Think Theologically
Every problem we face has some theological dimension. Conflict, anxiety, lust, laziness, hopelessness, anger, you name it and what we think of God has something to do with it. And this is true whether or not we are theologians. That’s the shocking thing - you are living according to theological beliefs. If you haven’t worked them out and built them in submission to God’s Word, then you are living with implicit beliefs that are almost certainly counter to God’s Word and his kingdom - and will result in bad choices and brokenness in your family, friendships, workplace, or church.
Lawrence argues that we need to bring three types of knowledge together to live well theologically. We need biblical knowledge, personal knowledge, and situational knowledge. The preceding chapters, and then the second part of the book explore how we gain biblical knowledge. The personal knowledge comes from reflection and meditation - considering ourselves and our situation in light of God and his plans. Situational knowledge comes from studying the world. It involves looking at the details of a particular law, or company policy, or scientific practice, or cultural activity.
When we bring these types of knowledge together, we are equipped to walk as Jesus did. Certainly we will stumble and make mistakes. We will be stumped at times, even with careful thinking. But on the whole, our lives will reflect the Creator and will give life to those around us when we have a proper view of God and ourselves and others, and when we have submitted to living as God intends for us to live.