How Presbyterians interpret the Bible
Disagreements about Scripture’s meaning abound, but some general guidelines can help.
The following article was originally printed in the January/February 2016 issue, "Children of God—not for sale," of Presbyterians Today.
“Presbyterians sure like to fight!” Whether recounting the war stories of the Scottish Highlanders or the political battles of the most recent General Assembly meeting, Presbyterians have engaged in many a high-minded, ideological argument. Many of those battles have been incited by disagreements on how to interpret and respond to the teachings of Scripture.
Presbyterians take the Bible seriously; it is the defining document for their faith. However, the diverse forms and content found within many passages of Scripture have generated a broad range of interpretations.
Many ask, “How can documents written by humans be truly God’s Word?” For Presbyterians the best answers can be found not so much by speculating over the “idea” of biblical authority—which inevitably leads to many more questions—but by studying the Scriptures themselves. The “doctrine of inspiration” is best grasped as we practice the essential task of study—that is, reading the text.
In recent decades, General Assemblies have provided essential guidelines for such reading and interpretation. To put those guidelines simply, “Read the text, in its historic and literary contexts, within the broader biblical context, and look for appropriate points of application in order to live it in the here and now.”
(1) First, in order to understand the meanings of Scripture, we need to be reading Scripture.
(2) Second, we need to read in context. Each of the Bible’s books was written in a particular genre by a particular person at a particular time for particular readers to provide particular information that addressed particular concerns. The first challenge for today’s reader is to try to identify as accurately as possible what those particulars were.
Some books are written like history texts (such as Joshua and Chronicles), while others read more like memoirs (the four Gospels), letters (Romans), poems (Psalms), or sermons (Hebrews). Some writings assemble a mix of genres (such as the parables and miracle stories found in the Gospels). When reading such varying genres, common sense dictates that we “hear” the way the writer is writing, just as newspaper reading requires us to differentiate between the varying approaches of the news reporter, the editorial writer, the sports reporter, and the comic strip writer.