Scripture is to be read purposefully with a goal of internalizing its truth so that you can apply that truth to your own life. Scripture is a living Word, which interacts with the person and context of the reader in its own voice of person and context from its original source. The Holy Spirit enables the Word to come alive within the person reading and studying it, so that the Word might speak life into the reader. Too often we try and speak life into the Word, bringing our own biases and preconceptions into the reading of Scripture, and expecting the Word to validate and confirm us and our views.
When engaging with Scripture in this manner, we are allowing for exegesis to occur. Exegesis is the process of allowing the truth to come forth out of Scripture, and is contrasted to eisegesis, which is the process of injecting “truth” into Scripture from an outside source. It is helpful, then, to remember five steps of engaging with Scripture in order to prevent reading the self into Scripture and to allow Scripture to speak life into the self. These steps can be remembered through their first letter vowels as such: O-I-E-U-A. The steps are: Observe, Interpret, Evaluate, Understand, and Apply.
Firstly, we must observe what is actually going on in a story of Scripture or what is actually being said in a teaching section of Scripture. We ask questions such as these: Who is speaking? What is being said? Who is acting? What is being done? We ask questions beginning with who, what, when, where, and how. At this beginning stage, we avoid all questions of why. We want to get a clear picture of the basic facts of the Scriptural passage. It is amazing what we think we know about certain passages of Scripture that is simply not there in the text. In this first step of biblical exegesis, we are simply allowing the text to speak for itself with no interruption.
Secondly, we interpret what we have observed through asking the question “Why?” of the facts gathered in the first step. However, our question of “Why?” is not an open ended question in which we then are enabled to arbitrarily interpret Scripture based on our own opinion. The answers to our “Why?” questions should come from within the passage of Scripture itself. This step of interpretation forces us to look more deeply within the passage to discern motives, supporting statements, lines of thought and logic, and other connections between the facts gathered in the first step. What we should be left with at the end of this step is a simple construct of the meaning of the passage – a shell, so to speak, which will now be tested and fleshed out – built upon the connections between the individual components of that passage. In other words, the text still must speak for itself into an enriched understand of the relationship between the characters, words, and contexts of the passage.
Thirdly, we take this skeletal understanding of the passage and we evaluate it based on the witness of Scripture as a whole. Is what we are perceiving the passage to say fitting with what the rest of Scripture says? Obviously, we cannot, each time we study a passage of Scripture, go back and read the rest of Scripture from beginning to end to evaluate what we are reading. However, here it is helpful to understand the basic themes of Scripture, as we studied before: Creation Relationship Sin Redemption Kingdom. Also it is helpful in this process to remember and evaluate by the four-fold message of the early kerygma: Jesus Christ is Lord – He is risen from the dead – Repent – The Kingdom of God is near. However, these are broad themes, and we must do further study than simple evaluating our passage by these criteria. Reviewing the whole of which the passage is a part is helpful – for instance, what does the rest of the book in which this passage appears say? Furthermore, reviewing the whole genre of which that book is a part is helpful – for instance, what do the rest of Gospels say in reference to this Gospel passage, or what do the rest of the prophets say in reference to this passage from one of the prophets? Also, if the book in which you find the passage you are studying has similar origins to another book of Scripture, then you can review what those other books say in reference to your passage. For instance, if you are studying a passage from Paul in Galatians, then compare that to the message of the other works of Paul. Finally, we must remember to evaluate everything through the lens of Jesus Christ and his teachings, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Let me add a quick note here on the topic of evaluation. At this stage, it is helpful to consult commentaries, but beware not to depend too much on them. However, there are some issues of context which we cannot understand through our level of study if Scripture, and we at times must depend on experts who have given much time and energy to studying certain portions of Scripture to speak to these issues.
Fourthly, after asking questions of the text and comparing and contrasting its perceived message with the rest of Scripture, then we are prepared to understand. Considering all that you have discovered in the first three steps, form a concise statement which attempts to capture the truth of the passage. In this step you answer, in an informed manner, the question, “What is this passage trying to communicate?” Remember to stay true to what you have discerned in your observation, interpretation, and evaluation of the passage. The statement of understanding should reflect what you learn in those steps, even if it contradicts or challenges your preconceived notions.
Finally, once Scripture is understood, it can be applied to daily life. Scripture is read in vain if the truth therein is not applied to the life of the individual and the community. The Word does not exist for us to simply know more about it, but the Word exists so that we might live in communion with God through it. The Holy Spirit is working with us through all of these steps, but is especially at work in bringing the truth of Scripture into communion with our actions.
As we practice these steps, they become less cumbersome and more automatic. We will read Scripture with a greater passion to have its truth dwell within us and we will invite the Spirit to bring the Word alive through us. We will begin to see things for what they are, to ask pertinent questions of Scripture, and to view Scripture as a whole and unified witness to God in Christ. Scripture will begin to come alive to us, and we will grow into new life in God.