Christianity 201

February 12, 2011

Devotional Interpretation

I often get asked about the two dominant study Bibles on the market, The NIV Study Bible (also reprinted in NASB, KJV and TNIV) and The NLT Life Application Bible (also reprinted in NIV, NKJV and NASB).  It’s an over-simplification on my part, but I usually fall back on this line:

“The NIV Study takes us in to Bible times and shows us some of the background of the text in its context; whereas the Life Application notes brings the Bible into our time and explains the revelance of the text to our lives today.”

Of course, the individual study notes in both number in the thousands, and shouldn’t be reduced to this generalization, but it works to some degree.  Another generation would be to say the Life Application notes are more devotional in nature.

Back in June 2010, Darrell Buchanan wrote a blog piece he called Devotional Interpretation; two words I had never mentally combined before…

I recently came across John Goldingay’s explanation of “Devotional Interpretation” in a section of his larger entry on “Hermeneutics” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (InterVarsity Press: 2003).

Specifically focusing on the Pentateuch, Goldingay says devotional interpretation is interested in the significance of a text “for people’s personal lives, especially their personal relationship with God” (390). This is a big reason why so many with good intentions to read through the Bible make it through Genesis and Exodus but usually give up when they reach the middle of Leviticus!

What a devotional reading forgets is that the focus of much (most?) of the Bible is on the community – Israel in the OT and the church in the NT.  Or, as Goldingay puts it: “[T]he Pentateuch instinctively thinks corporately, as modern readers do not. It thus has the potential to rescue devotional reading from some of its individualism” (391).

The Christian Faith Institute blog seems to take a very un-charitable view of devotional interpretation at first glance, though I suspect their concern is when it waters down preaching, which requires study at greater depth.

…A common practice is to interpret scripture “devotionally” or “privately”. By “devotional interpretation” we mean reading the scripture assuming what it means to us personally, without taking the trouble to see if that is the intended meaning of the passage. Devotional study is a positive practice, but the casual use of it is what we are referring to here. Devotion to God must be based on what God actually says…

…The first step in applying the scripture is to understand what it meant to the generation when it was written. Scripture does not mean what we think it means, because we feel that God has spoken to us from it in a particular way. The scripture means what it meant to the generation it was addressed to.

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet 1:20-21).

“Private interpretation” means we interpret the Bible personally, without first finding out what it means contextually (in its own context). The meaning of prophetic scripture is not arbitrary, according to our view, but it is according to what the Holy Sprit originally said…

F. E. Stoffler (as cited by E. J. Swensson) provides some historical background:

Later [Pietism] was opposed to the Enlightenment attempt to reduce Christian commitment to the acceptance of a few propositions held to be rationally demonstrable…Pietists strove to restore to Protestantism a theology based on a commonsense, untortured, more-or-less literal, and basically devotional interpretation of the Bible.

I’ve stated here already that the Jewish mindset was that the scriptures were like a diamond; and just as a diamond refracts the light differently when held at different angles to both the light source and the human eye; so also are the various ways that the scripture can be interpreted.   Therefore, I believe that the ‘face value’ of a text may be valid for some, while the historical context interpretation may serve others better.  But I do not risk suggesting that the one is better than the other.