My friend, David Huskey, recently sent me a link to a Peter Enns blog post that included discussion about different approaches to interpreting the Bible. (You can see it here. The comments are about half way down the blog.)
Enns contrasts what he calls a “cookbook” approach to the Bible with what he prefers, a “novel” approach to the Bible. In the cookbook approach, “It doesn’t matter where you find the recipe you’re looking for. The location of the recipe is irrelevant to its meaning.” This is what I have referred to as understanding a “flat Bible,” where every text has equal authority and is independently authoritative. I have referred to this as the “treasure box” approach or the “dictionary” approach to the Bible. The most extreme version of this was an approach to Christian counseling (sometimes called Biblical Counseling) that produced books in which a list of verses were given for every possible psychological malady. Depressed? Read these three verses. Still depressed? Here are a couple more verses. Still depressed? I guess you are beyond help. This approach is reinforced by stories in which people tell of a dark night of the soul experience in which the Bible fell open to a random verse that was read and which changed their lives.
I do not doubt that God uses his Word in ways that are ultimately mysterious and beyond easy explanation. I do not even doubt the power of single verses and the value of learning memory verses. But this does not justify the cookbook approach to interpretation. While all verses of the Bible may be equally true, not all have the same position of authority. And a verse that is unmoored from its dock loses the helpful context necessary for correct understanding.
Enns contrasts this cookbook approach to what he calls the “novel” approach to the Bible. He does not mean “novel” in the sense of new and unique, but in the context of something like a detective novel. We need to read the whole book to understand it story and message. As Enns says, “The Bible is an unfolding story, and not entirely unlike a detective novel. As the story of God’s interactions with his people unfolds, we learn more and more what kind of God we’re dealing with and what his plans are for humanity. And the story culminates, in an extremely surprising way, in Jesus Christ.” To me, this is reminiscent of the work of Northrup Frye, the great Canadian literary critic who saw the Bible as “The Great Code.” For Frye, the Bible was the great story of western civilization, the archetype of all literature. All our stories are found in the texts of the Bible, and the text of the Bible is cumulatively the great story of humankind.
I like this on one level, but on another level I would prefer to confine the novel approach to single books of the Bible or to specific a specific biblical author. I think we jump too quickly to interpret Daniel using the book of Revelation, for example. And I think that in the evangelical world, we invariably use Paul to interpret everything in keeping with our Reformation heritage. This even extends to the immediate use of Matthew to interpret Mark. There is value in this, but shouldn’t we wrestle with Mark on its own terms first? Isn’t it better to use Mark 1-3 to interpret Mark 4 than to immediately jump to Matthew 13 to interpret Mark 4? Isn’t it better to use Luke to interpret Acts than Galatians? Isn’t it better to use the Gospel of John to interpret Revelation than Daniel? Just asking.
Nebraska Christian College