“What It Means to Me”
I’m greatly enjoying mornings with my daughters. We’ve started a new routine this year. I spend 15 minutes with each of them discussing the Bible and praying for one another. With my oldest daughter, I’m studying Hebrews. With my youngest daughter, I’m reading 1 John. They chose the books, and God has been meeting with us in powerful ways.
I’m a bit of a dim-wit, because it just dawned on me this morning that these times are rich with opportunity for teaching them not just the discipline of reading (set a time, choose a book, do it regularly, etc.) but also how to read the Scripture. I find myself drawing their attention to the basics: subjects, verbs, similes, metaphors, repetition, and so on. As we do that, we fight taking things for granted in the text and incredibly rich things “pop out” at us. And we also learn to avoid the frequent mistake of simply jumping to “this is what it means to me.”
That little sentence has been the death of many well-meaning attempts to understand the Bible. “What it means to me” ruins our understanding because it decapitates the intent of the original author. What matters first and primarily is “what did it mean to John or Paul or Luke or whoever wrote Hebrews.” What did the author intend to communicate. That’s first base in biblical interpretation and its the guard rail that keeps us from driving off into the wilderness of subjectivity and a million swamps of private interpretation.
And, ultimately, we’re concerned to know what the Author–God Himself–intends to communicate with us. If we’re hasty to rewrite the Bible with our own thoughts, we’ll ultimately write God right out of it. A premature “what it means to me” takes the pen out of God’s hand and dips it in the ink of our puny intellectual, emotional, social, psychological and usually idolatrous wells.
Writing on a larger subject, but commenting very helpfully where this issue is concerned, Carl Trueman offers the following:
“if the intent of the divine author does not inform and ultimately determine the meaning of scripture, then three things follow: scripture has no normative set or range of meanings; theology becomes merely reflection upon human religious psychology; and God remains an unknown, and unknowable, quantity.” (Wages of Spin, p. 55).
Now that’s a train wreck! And it explains so well why some people “don’t get anything out of the Bible.” In fact, they may not be reading the Bible in such a way as to “get something out,” but to always put something in–self. Can it be any wonder that wherever we put self where God belongs we get nothing out of it?
In it’s proper place–well after we’ve done the careful work of understanding the author’s intent–”this is what it means to me” can be helpful. It’s then just another way of bringing home the application. But if this sentiment forgets its place, it’ll undermine the deeper, richer blessings of Bible study that we’re meant to enjoy when we sit and let the Father speak to us.