Our Experiential Limitations In Reading the Bible

One of the more important things I’ve learned in seminary is that no one has an unbiased reading of the Bible.

Our understanding of the text, whether we like it or not, is conditioned by our culture and upbringing. There is no perfectly universal theology. Our failures to understand this is displayed when we are resistent or estranged to topics such as “Black theology” or “Hispanic theology”, failing to see how most of how we understand the Bible is because white middle class men have written our theology books.

But I digress, because this is not about global theology, as it is about me.

The clear application I gather from this fact is that…my reading of the Bible is limited. That whether I like it or not, my culture and my upbringing provides a lens by which I read the scriptures. Some are for good, some are not for good.

For example, one of my favorite passages which I love to talk about is John 7, the account of the sinful woman. It is a story about redemption from our shame and wrongdoings. This passage hit so hard at home and blessed me so much because I grew up in a shame culture.

But as a counter example, when I read Lamentations, I have no idea how to relate because quite frankly, I have never grown up in a war-torn context, where I witnessed my family and my friends being carried off into exile. I suppose if I did, I would have read it with much greater depth.

And as I read the Bible more and more, I see more and more of my inability to understand the scriptures because of my experiential limitations, whether it be my culture or my own personal upbringing. I understand that understanding the original context of the passage would lend help to me, but only intellectually, not experientially and emotionally. And therefore, there are some passages I really get, some passages I sorta get, some passages, I have no idea.

I believe this injects a real dose of humility because I love God’s word and I’ve read it many times. But even what I’ve read I do not yet understand unless someone helps me understand. I do not have universally capable interpretations of God’s word because I am not universal; I am limited, as with my understanding.

I need to listen to others of different cultures to hear what they have to say. I need to listen to how poor people understand the Bible (ever talk to a homeless person about the Bible? It’s very interesting!). I need to listen and understand that the collective body of Christ will offer me a perspective that will benefit me in the long run.

Phillip Chan

Phil has been writing for 10 years. His passion is to grow in his love for Jesus to obey his purposes in our generation.

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