How Readest Thou?
Three Questions You Must Ask
by Jerry Griffin
"How readest thou?" Jesus once asked a Bible scholar that
very question. The story is in Luke 10:25-37. It begins with the
scholar testing Jesus' own scholarship to see what He would say.
The scholar's test question was "What must 1 do to inherit
eternal life?" Jesus responded with a counter-question: "What is
written in the Law? How do you read it?" In essence, Jesus turned
the table on the scholar by implying, "You're the scholar; you
tell me. How do you interpret what the Scripture says?"
That's the million-dollar question that echoes across time
and down to you today. How are you to interpret the Bible, and to
do so correctly? Well, it isn't as complex and arbitrary as some
think. In fact, much of it boils down to common sense and a basic
understanding that the Bible is a written document whose forms of
expression are similar to other works of literature. As with any
literary work, you must pay careful attention not only to what
the writer is saying, but also to how he's saying it, that is, to
the literary techniques he's using to communicate his thoughts.
So it is with the Bible. The what and how are both
One of the best methods for digging out the what and how is
for you to engage the text, so to speak, in a mental dialogue or
conversation, or, better yet, an interview. In this technique,
you allow the text to reveal its components by asking it the
right questions - exegetical questions - and then by stepping out
of the way to listen objectively for its answers. This listening
type of dialogue or interview begins with three fundamental
questions that you must ask of every text:
1) What does the text actually say?
2) What did the text mean to the original audience?
3) What is the meaning of the text for today?
What does the text actually say?
This question involves content - the five W's of the text:
who, what, when, where, and why.
a. Who is speaking, who is being spoken to, and who else is
b. What is happening, what's the situation, what's the issue?
c. When is it happening?
d. Where is it happening?
e. Why is it happening?
To answer these questions properly, you will need to read
the verses or chapters before and after a passage for the
Determining what the text says also involves paying
attention to its composition - the sentence structure and wording
of the text. How is it being said grammatically? What is the
subject of the sentence? What is the tense of the verb? What are
the definitions of the words?
Concerning the definition of words, several points are
First, words must be understood within their immediate
contexts. Any given word may have several meanings, but not all
of its possible meanings apply each and every time. Choosing the
correct definition is not like ordering from a menu where you may
pick from a variety of items to suit your taste. Rather, it is
the use of a word in a given context that determines its meaning.
Take, for example, the word "house." It normally refers to
the building where one lives. But it would be misleading and
somewhat ridiculous to use that definition in Joshua 24:15: "As
for me and my house, we will serve the LORD" (KJV). Here the word
means "family," rather than "building."
Another caution is also in order. Like all modern readers,
you will have the tendency to define biblical words with
twenty-first century concepts in mind. Instead, you should strive
to understand biblical words according to the definitions used in
biblical times. This is not always easy to do; yet the task is
not impossible. Always start with the context. Often the biblical
writer will define his terminology or give a clue to a word's
connotation within the text itself. Allow him to define his own
terms; don't impose your definitions on him. If you need more
help than the context provides, then consult a biblical language
dictionary. Stephen Renn's Expository Dictionary of Bible Words
(Hendrickson, 2005) or W. E. Vine's Complete Expository
Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (AMG, 1996) are helpful
and easy to use, even if you have no knowledge of Hebrew or
One last word about words - not only do biblical words need
to be understood according to biblical times, but the words of
any English translation must also be understood according to the
time period of the translation. This is especially true of older
translations like the King James Version.
For example, in 1611 when the King James Version was first
published, the word "let," as used in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, meant
"to prevent." Today, "let" means the exact opposite, "to allow."
You can easily be misled if you apply modern English definitions
to old English terms. Therefore, whenever you're unsure about the
meaning of a word, the best advice is "Don't presume; look it
What did the text mean to the original audience?
This question involves putting yourself in the sandals of
those who first received and read the text. What impact did the
words have on them? How did they understand and respond to what
Here again, you must be careful not to read your modern-day
presuppositions into the text. Try to think historically. Pay
attention to the overall context for clues concerning the
historical, religious, cultural. and philosophical backgrounds.
If you let the text be your first source of information about
these matters, then much of the Bible's message will come
through. Although it would be nice, it's not necessary to become
an expert on the ancient world in order to make sense of the
text. Just the awareness that the Bible is speaking from an era
and lifesetting different from your own is half the battle. If
you need more help, consult what the historical experts have to
say in a comprehensive Bible Dictionary or Commentary.
Keep in mind, however, that the main objective is not to
focus on the historical background per se, but on the intention
of the text within that background. It is the message the
biblical writer conveyed to the people of his day that is
What is the meaning of the text for today?
This question involves applying the original intention of
the text to modern life. But be careful not to put the cart
before the horse. You should ask this third question only after
you have adequately answered the first two.
Don't be like most people who skip questions one and two and
go straight to question three. Remember, you must first listen to
the text - to hear what it says and what it meant to the original
audience - before drawing any conclusions. Otherwise, you run the
risk of reading into the text ideas that were never there in the
first place. Try to get an objective handle on the text before
subjecting it to your subjective feelings.
More mistakes are made here than anywhere else, precisely
because each of us brings his or her own emotional, cultural, and
religious baggage to the text. This is why there are so many
different opinions about what the Bible teaches. Yet, the proper
application of a text does not need to be a matter of guesswork.
The pitfalls of subjectivism can be avoided if you'll follow a
few basic guidelines.
1. Let the text establish its own parameters of application. A
text cannot mean something today that would have been entirely
foreign to the original author and his readers. This principle
may not always lead you to what the text means, but it will help
set limits on what it cannot mean. This is especially helpful
when interpreting prophetic passages.
2. Compare your application of a given text to the major themes
and teachings found elsewhere in the Scriptures. No modern
application should be contrary to the perspectives offered in the
Bible as a whole.
3. Don't assume that the Bible functions as a divine "ouija
board" to answer all of your personal questions: who to marry,
where to live, what job to take, etc. It was never intended for
that purpose. On this point, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have
this to say in their book, "How to Read the Bible for All Its
[The Bible] contains all that a Christian really needs in
terms of guidance ... But it does not always contain answers
as specific and personal as some people would wish, and it
does not contain all its information in every chapter of
every book! Too impatient to find God's will from the Bible
as a whole, people make mistakes - they allow themselves to
misinterpret individual parts of the Scriptures.
4. Distinguish between texts that are prescriptive (commanding
what ought to be) and those that are descriptive (reporting what
was). Also distinguish between texts that have a universal
application and those that pertained to a particular
circumstance. In other words, don't assume that all texts have
direct applications, issue direct commands, or establish
universal norms for today. Many texts are addressed solely to the
people and situations in biblical times, and therefore simply
describe what took place.
For example, Acts 2:42-47 reports that the very first
Christians in Jerusalem sold their possessions, pooled the
proceeds, and "had all things in common." The text is
descriptive. The first Christians engaged in a form of communal
living centered on daily meetings in the Temple courts and shared
meals. Notice, however, that the text gives no prescription or
command that a communal lifestyle should be the norm for all
Christians henceforth. Neither is there any indication in the
rest of the New Testament that such was the case as primitive
Christianity expanded beyond Jerusalem.
Even if a text is prescriptive, however, be careful to note
whether the command is universal or particular. For example, in 1
Corinthians 16:1-4 the Apostle Paul issues a specific command for
each member of the Corinthian church to set aside a sum of money
at the beginning of each week for the famine-stricken church in
Jerusalem. Paul intends to collect these donations when he
arrives in Corinth and then deliver them to Jerusalem. Obviously,
the particular crisis that concerned Paul in the first century is
a thing of the past. The circumstances have long since changed.
Thus, these verses are not a direct command for you to aid those
same famine-stricken saints. Nor do these verses command you to
give an offering at church every Sunday morning, as some like to
apply them. However, even though the direct command in this text
is no longer applicable, you may still draw a general lesson or
principle from Paul's example, namely, giving generously to those
in need. In this sense, you can learn something from every Bible
passage, even though every passage may not be a direct command or
have direct application to you.
The three questions you must ask of every text are part of
what's known as the grammatico-historical method of
interpretation. The grammatico portion concerns question one:
What do the words of the text, in terms of their grammatical
content and composition, actually say?
The historical portion concerns question two: What did the
words mean in the life and times of those who first heard them
(i.e. the historical, religious, cultural, and philosophical
context). These first two questions involve carefully examining
or "listening" to the text.
Question three ("What is the meaning of the text for
today?") involves application. Answer it by evaluating the
information gathered from questions one and two, and then
appropriating the applicable information, if any, to your life.
In essence, these three questions are hermeneutics in a
nutshell. They are the foundation of the interpretation process.
All other principles and techniques are built on them. Don't read
the Bible without them!
Jerry Griffin is the former director of Summit School of Theology
He writes from Denver. Colorado. 2007 by Jerry Griffin
Taken from "Acts" magazine, June 2008, a publication of the
General Council Churches of God, 7th Day, Meridian, ID, USA.
Entered on this Website August 2008