Whether we know it or not, we practice interpretation each time we read the Bible. In fact, we interpret whenever we read just about anything: the newspaper, a street sign, a novel. We are always interpreting, both consciously and subconsciously. However, it is good for us to move interpretation as close to the conscious level as much as possible, so that we’re actually aware of just how we’re interpreting! This helps us guard against any errors that we may be prone to make by interpreting subconsciously.
Wait a minute – what kind of subconscious errors can we make?
Consider that when each of us approaches the Bible, we bring all sorts of “baggage” with us. That is, we bring personal history that is full of emotional and intellectual understandings, which we call “presuppositions.” We may have arrived at these consciously (through reading a book or in a class), or subconsciously (an emotional event may establish an understanding in our mind – true or not – about “the way things are,” such as “I can’t trust people” or “Life is short”). These presuppositions are not necessarily bad things, but we must be aware of them, because our goal of interpretation is to look at the Bible objectively, and some of this baggage may cause us to insert subjective elements into our interpretation. In other words, our intent is to draw the meaning out of the biblical text, rather than allowing our “baggage” to colour a certain meaning into the text for us. As much as possible, it is best for us to approach the Bible without our baggage, though that is often a difficult task.
Indeed, interpretation can be a difficult task, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating. I hope that this coming series of articles will help each of us to be more humble and respectful interpreters.