August 26, 2010

Do You Understand What You’re Reading?

Category: Bible,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

In the course of his discussion of reading (better: hearing) the Bible, Eugene Peterson draws our attention to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “On the road to Gaza I find the focus for my hermeneutical work as pastor: the Ethiopian reading Scripture and not understanding it; Philip guiding him into comprehension” (Working the Angles 127).

While we often hear in the Bible about people listening to God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people, here we have a case of a man reading it all by himself.  I wonder if this stands out to us the way it should.  In much of the Christian world today, with its heavy emphasis on daily Bible reading, we may take it for granted that a man would read the Bible all by himself.  In fact, this may even be our preference: Ask Christians today which is more important, the private reading of the Bible or the corporate hearing of Scripture in church, and I suspect that many would point to the former.

More than that, I suspect that many trust the former more than the latter.  We prefer to read it for ourselves rather than hear someone read it to us, and so even when the minister is reading Scripture in church we open up our Bibles and follow along (or perhaps get distracted by the ways in which his translation differs from ours).  To really understand the Bible, we want to study it ourselves.

Now there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible all by yourself.  It was fine for the Ethiopian eunuch to be doing so, and it’s fine for us to do so as well.  But if we think that we can understand the Bible best if we study it all by ourselves, poring over the text without anyone else instructing us, then maybe we need to listen more carefully to the story in Acts, where God does not leave the Ethiopian eunuch alone.  Peterson writes:

Hermeneutics begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30).  The play on words in Philip’s Greek is untranslatable: ginoskeis ha anaginoskeis?  The difference between reading and understand seems so slight — a mere prefix (ana) in a Greek verb — that we are slow to realize the abyss that separates what Isaiah wrote from what we understand….  We ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.

The question is answered with a question: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (v. 31).  The questioner is questioned: Will you guide me?  The word choice is critical: not explain but guide.  The Greek words for “explain” and “guide” share the same verbal root, “to lead,” and have a common orientation in and concern for the text. But the explainer, the exegete, leads the meaning out of the text; the guide, the hodegete, leads you in the way (hodos) of the text.  Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more.  The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide.  This is going to take some time….  Philip decides on hodegesis.  He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey (127-128).

I wonder if it would occur to us, accustomed as we are to thinking that we can study the Bible best on our own, to answer Philip’s question the way the Ethiopian eunuch did: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”  The implication, surely, is that without a guide he could not have understood what we was reading in Isaiah.  He may have been able to grasp what the various sentences meant and yet he did not get the full meaning of the whole: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34).  In particular, he did not see that Isaiah was speaking about Jesus until he had a guide who led him down that path.

That, as Peterson says, is the calling of a pastor: to guide people into the right understanding of Scripture, and in particular to guide them to Christ.  And that is why we need pastors: How can we understand Scripture rightly without a guide?

Reading Scripture is not, it would seem, an autonomous activity.  The solitary reader of Isaiah in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-commanded Philip.  The Spirit brings people together over Scripture — listening, questioning, conversing toward faith.  The questioning reader was joined by the listening interpreter.  Isaiah, dead but word-present in the scroll, made a third.  The unseen but Spirit-present Christ became the fourth (130).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:10 pm | Discuss (2)

2 Responses to “Do You Understand What You’re Reading?”

  1. Kenny Anderson Says:

    Great post John. I’ve never heard the contrast between exegete and hodegete… very thought-provoking.

    Another thing to add to the idea of private reading and public hearing might be the example of those in Berea (in Acts 17). After they were guided through the way of the text they examined the Scriptures to see if the things they were guided through were so. In other words, there needs to be a guide but the guidance needs to be examined in light of Scripture. What do you think?

  2. John Barach Says:

    Thanks for the interaction, Kenny. I think you’re right: The Bereans are commended for searching the Scriptures after hearing what Paul said.

    It’s not that they thought they were experts and Paul was questionable, but rather that Paul was saying some surprising things (about Jesus, the end of the Old Covenant, and so forth) and they wanted to make sure that what he said really did line up with Scripture.

    Preachers shouldn’t want blind acceptance from their congregation (“I said it; you believe it; that settles it for you”).

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