This is another topic I am currently studying to better understand the why and how of bible studies. My sources are a book by Grant Osborne, “The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation“, and a series of lectures by Robert Stein, a senior professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Biblical Interpretation concerns the study of the meaning of Biblical texts. It is important to see that there are two levels of meaning. The first is the meaning that the author intended to convey. The second is the implication of the intended meaning for the current situation or “contemporary significance”.
Consider a simple example, Ephesians 5:18 (NIV), “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”
What is the intended meaning of this verse? That we shouldn’t get drunk on wine? If yes, that means it’s OK if we get drunk on vodka, or beer. But the vodka wasn’t mentioned is simply because it didn’t exist then. Even if it did, what is the point mentioning every single alcoholic drink. So, was the original meaning not to get drunk on any alcohol? If we accept this meaning, then drugs are alright, which again doesn’t lie square. So, the most likely intended meaning was that we should not consume in large quantities any substance that can make us lose control of ourselves.
What does it mean to us today (what our today’s implications)? Not getting drunk on whiskey, cognac, or getting high on a drug or glue, or whatever else people invent to get “high”.
Note that intended meaning is independent of culture, while contemporary significance is highly dependent on it. The intended meaning is abstract, significance is very practical.
There are two common mistakes people make with regard to these two meanings:
1) Stop after discovering the intended meaning, assuming that implications are obvious. Nothing can be farther from the truth! Consider implications of the statements, “You cannot serve both God and material possessions” or “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Their implications are pretty much still a matter of many debates.
2) Bypassing the discovery of the original meaning. This posses several dangers. One is taking Bible too “literally”. The Bible was written to a particular culture, some aspects of which no longer exist today. Hence following commands explicitly may result in “blind obedience” that is often misguided, frustrating, and plainly wrong. Some examples include calls for women to wear head scarves or be silent in church. Another danger is limiting your obedience to only things explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Many things have changed in 2000 years, many new issues appeared that simply did not exist before. Wrongly responding to these situations is equivalent to disobeying God.