3 Ways to Understand the Bible

My friend T. M. Moore writes a daily email devotional called Crossfigell in which he includes a quote from a noted Celtic Christian and a related portion of Scripture followed by his brief commentary on them. [Crossfigell means “cross vigil,” a Celtic prayer practice in which one would hold out his or her arms in a cruciform position while praying. Legend has it that one Celtic saint prayed in this posture long enough for birds to build a nest in his hand!]

This week T. M. sent a series of 3 devotionals on the topic of interpreting God’s Word. I’ve included the full text of all 3 here, but you really should sign yourself up to receive his rich daily messages. Sign up for Crossfigell at his website, Paruchia (see the menu on the left side).

Understanding Scripture (1)

For Holy Scripture is understood by three methods of approach. The first way of reading it is when it is understood only literally without any figurative purpose, as St. Jerome says, “The Acts of the Apostles seem to me to speak of plain history.” – Liber de Ordine Creaturarum, Irish, 7th century

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundrend years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, full convinced that God was able to do what He had promised. – Romans 4.19-21

One mistake people make in reading the Bible is failing to allow it to speak to them with respect to the plain teaching of the historical record. There is much to learn simply from understanding events in their proper setting and time. How shall we lay hold on the promises of God? Paul says, Well, look what Abraham did: He looked past the restraints of his circumstances, gave glory to God for what He had promised and what He could do; thus, he envisioned himself in possession of the promised blessing and took the necessary steps of faith to attain it. There is nothing mystical or allegorical here, just the straightforward lesson from history as to how we, who are the heirs of those same promises, may expect to realize them in our own day. This is the starting point for all right understanding of Scripture: what does the record say, in its plain historical meaning and original historical setting, and what can we learn from observing this example? So don’t be too quick to let your response to the Word of God fly to heights of spiritual implication and application. That may be important, as we shall see. Begin by asking, What’s happening here, and how can what’s happening help to shape my own walk as I take up the example of our forebears in the faith (Rom. 15.4)? Much power and many blessings are to be had by simply taking the Word at face value and bringing its historical lessons into our own walk with the Lord each day.
Understanding Scripture (2)

For Holy Scripture is understood by three methods of approach…The second way is when it is investigated following a figurative understanding without any regard for actual events, as with the first and final parts of Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, and the exposition of certain Gospel parables, which say one thing and represent another. – Liber de Ordine Creaturarum, Irish, 7th century

As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. – Song of Solomon, 2.3, 4

It may or may not be possible to identify the historical situation referred to in the Song of Solomon, but it matters very little. There are those who would reduce the Song to a kind of manual of human love. And, while the exchanges between Solomon and his beloved can yield insights into the beauty and wonder of marital love, deeper mysteries seem to be at work here. If we miss these, we miss the point of the Song altogether. Prompted by Paul and John to think of the Church as the Bride of Christ, we find the Song a bright source of illumination into the richness, depth, and fullness of joy that relationship affords. The Song teaches our hearts how to love our heavenly Groom, and creates in us a hunger for a deeper relationship with Christ and a more overwhelming experience of His love. If churches knew this love of Christ and loved Him as much in return, would not their common love for Him inflame them for one another as well, and lead them to overlook the many differences that divide us, so that we might celebrate and encourage one another in seeking greater heights of love for our glorious King and Groom? Let us sit in the shadow of Christ’s love, cool and protected against the heat of the secular day, and let us feed on His fruit and grow fat in His spiritual provision, unfurling together and in every situation our banner of love by and for the King Who has saved us!
Understanding Scripture (3)

For Holy Scripture is understood by three methods of approach…The third way is when, retaining the record of historical events, it is understood with a mystical meaning, for instance, Noah’s ark, the tabenacle, and the temple were actually built, and through them are traced with understanding the mysteries of the church. -Liber do Ordine Creaturarum, Irish, 7th century

I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. – 1 Corinthians 10.1-5

All that sad history of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness has ongoing spiritual significance for us today. That’s Paul’s argument in a nutshell when he is trying to get the Corinthians to live in a manner consistent with their profession. The Israelites “tasted” of the Lord, but they did not feed on Him. Just so, many who have been baptized and participate in the life of the church are merely “tasting” of the Lord; they have not truly known Him in a life-changing way. Their baptism, church attendance, even their public profession of faith won’t save them if there is no turning away from the idols of the age and the lifestyle of unbelief to follow Christ in the way of self-denial and sacrificial love. “Therefore” Paul continues “let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (v. 12). The stories from Biblical history have important practical lessons to teach us, but they also hold vital spiritual significance, if only we know how to read them. We must read them in the light of Christ, Who is the Focusing Light of all the revelation of God, for in Him the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. Our study of God’s Word – like our profession of Christian faith – is not complete until we see Jesus in the text, meet and feed on Him there, and are through this encounter transformed into His image by the Spirit of God. Some of the Corinthians were deceiving themselves, for they had not yet come to know Jesus. May the same not be true of us. “Examine yourselves” (2 Cor. 13.5).

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