Post Author: Bill Pratt
If you’re reading a Bible passage, when should you start thinking about how it applies to your life? Many of us think that this is the first thing we should do after reading a passage, but I want to discourage that way of thinking.
Before thinking about how a passage applies to us, we should first spend our time trying to find the objective meaning of the text. What was the original author trying to say to the original audience?
Theologian Norman Geisler, in his Systematic Theology, Volume One has some helpful advice for us:
The objective meaning of a text is the one given to it by the author, not the one attributed to it by the reader. Readers should ask what was meant by the author, not what it means to the reader. Once a reader discovers what the author meant by the text, he has obtained its objective meaning. Thus, asking, “What does it mean to me?” is the wrong question, and it will almost certainly lead to a subjective interpretation. Asking of the author, “What did he mean?” will almost certainly lead the reader in the right direction, that is, toward the objective meaning.
The first step, then, is to figure out what the author’s intended meaning of the text is. Many of us are tempted to skip this step because, well, it’s hard. It’s a lot easier to just read some verses and try to apply them to our own experiences. Figuring out what the original author meant might require we spend some time studying the text, consulting a Bible dictionary, reading a commentary.
It’s true that trying to find out the original meaning of the text can be hard work, but most things in life worth having come from hard work. Bible study is no exception. Once you’ve discovered the meaning of the text, then start thinking about how it applies to your life. Remember that the text only has one meaning, but it may have several applications or implications.
Geisler offers this example from science to make this more concrete: “Einstein knew that e=mc2 (Energy equals mass times the speed of light [constant] squared), and so does an average high school science student. However, Einstein knew many more implications of this than the average high school student.”
You must first understand what is meant by e=mc2 before thinking about all of its implications. The better a student understands the meaning of e=mc2, the more implications he will see. Likewise, when you read a Bible passage, work to understand what the author intended to say to his original audience. Once you’re comfortable that you have the objective meaning, then start your search for the implications of the text for your life. If you get these out of order, you’ll surely get way off track with your understanding of the Bible.