WHO WANTS TO BE CRITICAL?
The word “critical” often has a negative connotation in people’s minds. To be “critical” can mean “to criticize severely and unfavorably, to be excessively judgmental, to be inclined to find fault.” But the word “critical” also carries a positive connotation, meaning “to exercise careful evaluation and skillful judgment of a matter.” If you take your car into the mechanic because there is a strange noise happening in the engine, and they tell you that they’re going to do a “critical diagnostic test,” that’s a good thing because they’re going to look very carefully at the results of the tests to try to determine what’s wrong.
It is this sort of careful investigation and attention to detail that we mean with the phrase “reading the Bible critically.” It’s about not just reading the Bible on a superficial level but developing a keen sense for how to read the Bible with careful evaluation and skillful judgment of what it says.
How can anything one thinks they know about the Bible be true if they have not first stopped and took notice of what it really contains? But the principle runs much deeper than merely superficial perusal of subject matter. It refers to the need to be precise and thorough in the examination of the object. Like a good detective, the more completely one perceives and understands the evidence, the more accurately they can deduce the cause.
CRITICAL READING IS PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION
It has been said that the Bible is full of small words that have big meaning, and it is true that small words are often indispensably important in determining the meaning of the text. But the reality is that nearly all words and the relationships among those words are vitally important to understand the meaning of the text. Reading the Bible with an eye for the details of what it is saying is “critical reading.” It is a manner of reading that looks to identify “what is said,” “where it is said,” “how it is said,” and answer other questions that are essential to discovering the meaning. It so much more than casual reading….it is attentive reading.
The most important skill in reading the Bible is recognizing what the text is actually saying. This might seem like common sense, but as we all can probably testify to, we don’t always read exactly what’s written all the time, whether it’s road signs, text messages, airline tickets, etc. We all have a tendency to sometimes miss the meaning of what we are reading. But there is also the tendency to assume that we completely understand what we are reading but mistakenly do not give adequate thought to the validity of our conclusions.
To read the Bible critically means seeing and taking note of the details in the text. In order to interpret something, we have to observe and understand what is there before trying to make sense of what it means. The famous Christian writer, C. S. Lewis advocated that “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” I think Lewis’ advice is quite sound as it applies to the field of literature, and more specifically, biblical literature.
The first goal of critical reading is not to decipher the meaning of the text but simply absorb an understanding of the layout, organization, and components of the text. It is taking note of the structure, lines of argumentation, and themes, and how they are all ordered and presented in the text. In other words, critical reading is going through and taking inventory of the “parts” that are laid out before beginning assembly. It is outlining the big picture and seeing the people, places, and words on the “artist’s canvas.” Noticing what they are doing and where they are in relation to each other must precede determining the purpose for them being there and the meaning they are conveying.
But before we even start talking about the text and how to read critically, we need to be aware of some other factors that are involved when we read and interpret the Bible.
NOTHING CAN MEAN ANYTHING WITHOUT A CONTEXT
Every verse in the Bible was written at a certain time, place, and to a specific audience. Therefore, there was a social, cultural, and religious context surrounding it when it was composed. But every time we read a verse we also come to the Bible with our own context. This is no fault or failure on our part for we use our context to interpret every form of information we encounter in life. Without our life context, we would be unable to understand and interpret even a newspaper, birthday card, or shopping list. Thus, our life context is not a negative hindrance to the interpretive process of contemporary media in our daily lives, but this does not hold true for ancient literature like the Bible.
We each have a way of looking at the world around us and understanding life. Our “culture-driven predispositions we call cultural baggage.” It is everything we have experienced that makes up the way we understand life, people, relationships, gender roles, philosophy, authority, government, and everything in between. Our cultural exposure since the day we were born influences every assessment and deduction we make every day, especially when it comes to reading written communication. We use it to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, and bridge the gaps. It is like the glue that holds together all the toothpicks of knowledge and experience we have accumulated for years and years.
Every person’s culture is comprised of at least 3 major levels of experience: 1) family culture, 2) regional culture, and 3) national culture. Family and national culture make up the greatest part of our cultural conditioning and awareness, but family culture is by far the most influential source of any person’s cultural framework. The challenge, then, is for the reader of Scripture to not bring the meaning of the text into agreement with their cultural framework but to understand the text on the basis of the culture within which it was written and then let the meaning of the text speak into the world of our culture. The Bible is above our culture. It is not to be tempered by the world of today, but to critique the world and to guide believers today just as it did when it was originally written thousands of years ago.
Our life context can be helpful in understanding the Bible to a certain extent. But there comes a point where our modern context and understanding of life can hijack and dictate the overall process of interpreting what we read in the Bible because the Bible is full of foreign expressions and ideas we do not often encounter in our lives. It was written thousands of years ago, in a different part of the world, in a different language, and in a different culture with a different form of government, manners and behaviorisms, values, worldview, course of life, ways of thinking and speaking, and religious beliefs.
If we take our life context and use it as the filter through which we understand the biblical text, we will likely be misled and gain a wrong understanding of the Bible. Our own contexts can cause us to develop a “private” (personal) understanding of the Bible that “makes sense to us” or “we approve of” but is not faithful to the meaning that was intended by the author. The objective in reading and interpreting the Bible is to recognize its meaning, not to assign it meaning. We can discover the true meaning of the text only by adhering to specific principles and methods that safeguard us from reading our own contexts and understanding into the text thereby leading us astray from its meaning.
I ALREADY KNOW THAT…
Another issue that we face when reading the Bible happens when we re-read it. After we read a passage in the Bible, the next time we read it we bring to the text whatever understanding we gained from the previous time. This is often called our “preunderstanding.” It is our base of accumulated knowledge that we have from our past encounters…with anything. Preunderstanding exists with anything that we have experienced at any point in our lives. We carry with us an ever increasing and changing body of knowledge and understanding.
The proper orientation for reading the Bible is reversed when “we as readers stand over the Word of God and determine what it means, rather than placing ourselves under that Word, seeking diligently to determine what God means in the text.”
One of the most dangerous symptoms we can contract when reading the Bible is familiarity. Familiarity, meaning being well acquainted with Scripture, is most certainly a good quality, necessary for properly understanding the Bible, which we should all strive to achieve as disciples and students of Scripture. But we must also be warned against a familiarity that brings reduced attentiveness, complacency, and false confidence. Such familiarity dulls our ability to read Scripture critically and to perceive nuances and details that make all the difference in discerning its meaning.
When reading any text, we can often find ourselves thinking that we already know what it means and so we tend to come to it with lazy eyes that scan the “landscape” as though we have already gazed upon every inch of it and don’t think there is anything new to see. Familiarity of this sort clouds our vision and ability to see what is truly there. And thus, leaving our sense of familiarity unchecked, we can inhibit ourselves from being able to read critically and see the text clearly.
Unchecked familiarity is a common temptation that we all face as readers of Scripture. When we read a passage that we have read many times before, we often have a natural tendency to assume that we already know what it says and what it means. Under this pretense, we can pass over it with only a fraction (if even that) of the thought and consideration it deserves. We must beware of being too familiar with Scripture in this way for “familiarity with a passage creates preunderstanding,” which can quickly obstruct the degree of distance that is required for critical reading. We must always endeavor to seek to discover the meaning of a passage anew and seek to evaluate the evidence of our conclusions, basing our assessment on reliable data and proper methods of interpretation.
Having an appropriate “distance” from the text means stepping back from the text and not having tunnel vision when it comes to reading what it says. Sometimes when we are too invested in or familiar with what we think a passage means, we can fail to have the distance between us and the text necessary to not be blinded by our personal bias. Like most things in life, distance provides perspective and time to see what otherwise we would have missed because we are too close to what is going on.
Our personal history, culture, and preunderstanding are indispensable for us to make sense of the world and everything we read and hear, but it can easily skew the way we look at Scripture, causing us to misinterpret its meaning. To avoid this ever-present challenge, the value of properly distancing ourselves from the text cannot be overstated. We must not bend the text to align with our preunderstanding, our preferences, or our social conventions. Rather, we must be willing to read Scripture without coloring it with our modern bias and preference, and we must be willing to subject our preunderstanding to scrutiny and revision when necessary as we continuously revisit passages of Scripture throughout our lives, gaining greater insight and understanding through critical reading and sound methods of biblical interpretation.
As we prayerfully read Scripture and seek the meaning that was inspired by God, we need to read critically and be aware of the pitfalls that can prevent us from seeing clearly what the Lord has revealed to His people. May the Lord bless you in your diligent search of the Scriptures as you increase in your knowledge and understanding of the life-giving Word of Truth.
Lewis, C. S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.
Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Journey Into God’s Word. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
 C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 19. (Emphasis mine)
 Ibid, 43-44. (Emphasis original)
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Journey Into God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 43.