How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages
As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Just last week, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.
The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely.
In this article, I want to offer some suggested steps for approaching and understanding difficult Bible passages. Before diving in, I should note that I believe this approach may be effectively applied to general interaction with the Bible, not just “problem areas.”
Context is King. Before trying to make sense of a passage, it is imperative that you read it in context. This means never reading a single, solitary Bible verse. Realistically, you should always try to read at least a paragraph. Reading contextually also means trying to understand Biblical passages in their wider literary, theological, and historical contexts as well. Confused by why Paul tells women to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? Doing some study on Paul’s purposes in writing to the Corinthians, the on-the-ground situation of the Corinthian church, and the honor-shame culture of the ancient Mediterranean world can go a long way in helping you understand what Paul is saying.
Consult Other Readers. Christians have been reading the Scriptures for thousands of years, even longer for Old Testament writings. You are not the first person to have trouble understanding or applying a passage. Accordingly, there are plenty of people whom you can consult on how to best make sense of the issue at hand. Your pastor would be a good place to start, and seasoned Christians would be a good next step. Depending on your desire to engage the academic aspects of Biblical Studies, there are also a plethora of resources available from Christians who have gone before you and made sense of the Bible’s complexities.1
Read Canonically. This is especially important to remember when reading passages that have parallels elsewhere, such as portions of the Old Testament histories, the Gospels, or Paul in Acts and his epistles. Recognize that each book is going to engage an event or message in a certain way and that certain other books may have different perspectives on the same events. This does not necessarily mean that one perspective is right and the other is wrong. Consider if harmonization is possible, and why each author may have highlighted the event the way they did. Realize that not everything that immediately looks different may actually be a contradiction.
Utilize Resources. There is so much information available to us here in the 21st century, both in print and online. There are a plethora of Bible translations, Bibles in the original languages, insights into textual criticism, early Bible manuscripts, maps, commentaries, concordances, and Bible information sites, and scholarly resources online that you can use free of charge. (There may even be friends who are getting their Ph.D.’s in the New Testament and Early Christianity who might be able to help you out or point you toward some resources.) Discernment is key here; not all resources are created equal. Be wary of voices who make claims about contested issues as if their perspective is beyond reproach. Again, this is where consulting others can be helpful.
Consider All the Evidence. Do not simply accept the revisionary word of one scholar, book, or TV show and run with it. At the same time, do not flippantly accept easy answers with which you already agree. Look at both sides of the evidence – historical, theological, literary, archeological, and otherwise. Read people you disagree with and consult those with whom you agree. Do not be afraid to find uncomfortable evidence – the truth will out in the end.
Determine What Is at Stake. If you have an extremely high view of Biblical inspiration and authority, recognize that one minor issue should not lead you to abandon your faith. Try to put things into broader perspective. Ask others who have undergone similar experiences to share how they made sense of the issues you are facing (the biblioblogging world is particularly helpful here). Unless you believe that your church or faith tradition is the only, exceedingly narrow path to God’s truth (in which case I am not sure why you are reading this), it is more likely that a Bible difficulty will offer a corrective to your theology rather than cause the whole truth of God’s Kingdom to crumble.
Stay Humble, Continue to Learn. If and when you find an answer to your difficulty, hold that solution humbly. Do not force your conclusions down everyone else’s throat. Remember the process you went through, and learn from it for the next time you face a difficult passage or question. Share what you have learned, but realize that different people find different things convincing. Support others as they seek to make sense of the Bible and discover truth themselves.
How do you approach difficult Bible passages? What resources or tactics do you use to make sense of the Biblical text?