When one reads the Bible, within the context of Evangelicalism, we tend to have a “personal” view of scripture. It’s how verses like Jeremiah 29:11, which were addressed to a particular people in a particular time, can be so inspirational the modern reader. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. The Holy Spirit helps us take away things from the Bible regarding the character of God and the nature of His dealings with us today. But I would also submit that this isn’t a “critical” method of reading scripture, either.
There are two, primary, critical forms of reading scripture: Historical-Grammatical and Historical-Critical. Here’s a quick rundown on them:
Historical-Grammatical – Is a form of reading the Bible that puts a heavy emphasis on literary observation and understanding the writings as, generally, being historical in nature. The ultimate ambition of this style is to take the reading of scripture and make applications based on the “plain” reading of the text. While not explicitly encouraging a literal reading of every verse (after all, there are figures of speech and metaphors in most languages), this method seeks to eliminate any unnecessary, allegorical interpretations from the Bible as possible.
Historical-Critical – Seeks to reconstruct the culture and history surrounding the writings of the Bible and use that to come to a conclusion about the author’s intended meaning. The critical method also takes on information from other disciplines such as science and anthropology, and makes use of their observations and studies and applies it to the text. The interpretation, and subsequent application, can be made when the “direct” meaning of the the Bible can be established from the source material.
There are overlapping and opposing features to both methods of reading. As I’m sure you can imagine, there is a fair bit of mud flung between people who try to use each method exclusively. Those who prefer the critical method of study say that others are making interpretations without all the extra-Biblical facts and coming to interpretive conclusions that are simply untenable by the discoveries of science and other disciplines. Grammatical emphasizers will claim that the critical method undermines the Bible’s authority and inspiration by humanizing the writings at the expense of the Holy Spirit’s influence.
Most evangelicals don’t know they are reading the Bible in these particular ways when they pick it up on a Sunday morning. Our presuppositions tend to “fill in the blanks” when we’re reading verses we don’t understand. What’s good to know is how different everyone’s reading of scripture truly is and where many of our difference originate from. If you’re going to read the Bible; or, more specifically, Genesis, as though it were written as a historical document, you’re obviously going to understand the theological doctrine of “sin nature” differently from those who read Genesis as a narrative. Not only that, you’re going to read Jesus’ words, when he recalls events in the Old Testament.
Is it any wonder we end up with such differing understandings of who God is?
Of course, the whole of the Church will likely not agree on how to read the Bible until Christ returns. By that time, I’m not so sure the Bible will be necessary any more. Until that time, I would like people to acknowledge is what some of their presuppositions might be when reading the Bible, and examine them so that, one, we are reminded to submit our reading of Scripture to Christ and, two, when we do disagree with someone on a theological topic, we better understand where and why we’re so different.