Understanding and Living God's Word: A Conversation with George Guthrie

I am very pleased to see a new initiative for biblical literacy being developed by George Guthrie, professor at Union University. The book is called Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God's Word and has just been released by Broadman & Holman. George has put together a very accessible introduction to Hermeneutics (how to understand the Bible) for laypeople and church leaders. The book is part of a broader initiative to reinvigorate personal and effective Bible reading and study in our churches.

Today, George is stopping by the blog to engage in conversation about the need for Christians to better understand and live according to God's Word.

Trevin Wax: "Hermeneutics" is a word that makes most people's eyes glaze over, doesn't it? But you believe that it's vitally important that we not just read the Bible, but that we learn to read it well. So hermeneutics - learning how to read and understand the Bible rightly - is key to accomplishing this task. Why do you think this subject is not often taught by pastors and church leaders?

George Guthrie: This has got to be one of the strangest oversights in modern church life, and the omission of this aspect of training seems to be true regardless of which church tradition is being considered.  Although Union is a Baptist school, we also have students from a wide variety of other church backgrounds.  From the informal polling I have done over the past seventeen years or so it seems that only about 5-10% of churches (and I think 10% is rather optimistic) offer any training at all in how to read and/or study the Bible well.

Trevin Wax: Since the Bible supposedly is the foundation document for the church and the guide for the Christian life and community, why then are principles for biblical interpretation often neglected?

George Guthrie: First, many pastors have not had adequate training themselves and read the Bible in a rather "flat" way.  Most of our Southern Baptist seminaries did not have a dedicated hermeneutics course until the 1990s.  But even those pastors who have had some training often have not worked what they learned in class into their own Bible reading, and they don't know how to make what they do know accessible to their church members.

Second, if you think about it, most of the high-impact Bible study training ministries, ministries like that of Kay Arthur, Bible Study Fellowship, or the Navigators, have been parachurch organizations.  I am very thankful for them, but such a ministry is often seen as an add-on to the normal processes of local church life.

So, many churches have not thought about training in Bible reading (much less Bible study) as a normal part of what they do. Reading the Bible well is something we have assumed people would pick up along the way.  A few have.  The vast majority haven't.  As with other areas of church life, if we aim at nothing we probably are going to hit it.

Trevin Wax: Our neglect of Hermeneutics is all the more startling when we consider the negative implications that flow from a chronic inability to rightly interpret Scripture. How does misinterpreting the Bible negatively affect our churches and our Christian life?

George Guthrie: Think of sound interpretation as a normal part of any healthy relationship.  If I am misunderstanding my wife on a regular basis, one or both of us will experience a lot of tension in the relationship; we are hurt as a couple and as individuals.  Of course, a person can be blissfully unaware that there is a problem—but the problem is there, nonetheless, and the unaware person is much worse off because he or she doesn't even know there is a problem!  The "blissful" person wakes up one day and realizes the relationship has disintegrated.

When it comes to our relationship with God, whether as individuals or as communities of faith, listening and understanding are crucial for healthy relationship.  That is why the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9)—and "shema" means "Listen!"—calls the people of God to hear as foundational to loving God.  Notice that to love God with all we are is integrated in that passage with taking His words with whole-life seriousness and passing them on inter-generationally.  We simply don't love God if we are not attending carefully to His words.

On the flip side, right listening to God's words—and by this I mean the best kind of interpretation, a humble listening that is poised to obey—builds up the church, which is built up by love and truth (Eph. 4:11-16).

Trevin Wax: Do you think that many controversies would be avoided if more Christians had a certain level of hermeneutical sensibility?

George Guthrie: To the contrary, better interpretation might actually start controversy in many churches, as unbiblical patterns are overturned by truth!  Most church people don't like you messing with their way of seeing the world.  That is a work that has to be done by the Spirit.  Yet, what a higher level of hermeneutical sensibility gives us is a common meeting point for discussion when issues come up.

Many controversies happen in churches because:

  1. the Bible is not the real authority for people, or
  2. people don't know how to talk about the Bible in ways that are healthy and fruitful.

In short, we need to raise the level of biblical literacy in our churches because there is no true love of God and life for God if not grounded in God's Word.

Trevin Wax: I agree that we need to raise the level of biblical literacy in the church today, and we need sound hermeneutical principles taught to our people. What I like about Read the Bible for Life is how you've organized the subjects and gone about teaching the subject. You take an approach similar to Lee Strobel in The Case for..books, where you interview scholars.

George Guthrie: I am glad you like the approach.  It was suggested to me by my friend Jack Kuhatschek, now the Executive Vice President and Publisher at Baker Books, and I believe that Jack, while at Zondervan, was instrumental in Strobel's approach in The Case for Christ.

The approach was attractive to me for two primary reasons.  I thought the style would be inviting to a layperson in the church, and interviews would allow me to tap the expertise of people who have spent their whole lives focusing on particular parts of Scripture.  B&H wanted me to simply write the whole book, out of my own study of the Bible, but I knew that pulling in these friends would greatly enhance the book—nobody is an expert on everything. I learned a lot in the process.

Trevin Wax: What was your thought process in choosing the scholars and pastors you wanted to talk to for the book?

George Guthrie: From the beginning I wanted to do a book (and the broader initiative) that would work within the local church, and, because of its extensive network of churches, I thought LifeWay/B&H would be the way to go.  I thought the leaders at LifeWay would want me to interview mostly Southern Baptist scholars, but early on they encouraged me to tap friends from the broader evangelical world.

So, I tried to choose colleagues who have done a great deal of top-rate study on particular parts of Scripture, or on topics related to the reading/studying of Scripture, and I wanted people who are passionate about the church.  Almost every interviewee is a friend of mine, and the "community" feel was important to me.  I have been taught by, or worked on writing projects with, or taught along side of most of those interviewed in the book.  God has graciously given me a friendship with people like Mike Card, David Platt, and Buddy Gray, and our conversations in Read the Bible for Life really flow from a common sense of mission in life.  Interviewing my wife Pat on "Reading the Bible with the Family" was a no-brainer.  God has so used her to shape me and our children, Joshua and Anna, in how we live the Bible.

Trevin Wax: Well... the format really works. It makes the content accessible and not so intimidating, even if the material might be a bit challenging for those who haven't done any study in this area. It's a good kind of challenging. You've also put together a new method of reading the Bible chronologically. Explain a little why you find chronological Bible reading to be helpful.

George Guthrie: In the back of Read the Bible for Life, there are two reading plans:

  1. the new chronological plan you mention
  2. a "4 + 1" plan.

With the latter a person reads at four different spots in the Bible on a given day, plus a psalm.  It is similar to a popular plan developed by Discipleship Journal years ago, and I like that approach very much.  However, the Read the Bible for Life initiative will focus on the chronological plan.  Most people struggle with biblical illiteracy in part because they have a very fragmented experience of the Bible, no grasp of how the grand Story of Scripture fits together.  A chronological plan can help put the pieces of the puzzle together in terms of historical framework.

Trevin Wax: Why is knowing the big story of Scripture so important to correctly understanding the Bible?

George Guthrie: Knowing the big story is so important, and at present, God seems to be raising an awareness of this in the broader Body of Christ.  In a blog post I just put up yesterday, I noted, "Most Christians are in danger of either seeing the stories of their lives as too big in a wrong way (and conversely see the Bible's story as too small), or seeing the stories of their lives as too small in every way (and not related to God's Grand Story)."

There are a number of reasons knowing the Story of Scripture is important.  For instance, the stories of the Bible have a broader context that is vital for us to grasp if we are to read the stories well.  Understanding the grand sweep of Scripture gives us a full picture of what God is up to in the world (whereas we might get a skewed picture if we just focused on bits here and there).  Understanding the big Story gives us points of reference on which to hang the details of the Bible. Getting the story gives a great deal of joy, as we see God's craft of writing such an elaborate, complex, beautiful Story on the world.  These are a few of the reasons for giving attention to the big Story of the Bible.

Trevin Wax: The Read the Bible for Life book is part of a larger initiative on biblical literacy.  What would be your hope for the initiative in the coming year?

George Guthrie: In dealing with the problem of biblical illiteracy in the church, I think we have got to think long-term. From my earliest conversations with the leaders at LifeWay, I have said, "The initiative cannot be about a book, or an event, or a church program.  We have got to ask, ‘How can we change processes in the local church over the next decade?'"  We also need to think outside of our "tribes," whether denominationally or in terms of publishing houses.  It is going to take all of us doing everything we can to address the problem if we are going to make a dent. I would love to see us work across denominations and publishing houses in a concerted way.

So, my hope for the next year would be that there would be a growing awareness in the church that new opportunities and tools are afoot (whether our tools or someone else's).  My hope would be that leaders would take time to consider seriously how pervasive the problem is—and the implications if we neglect it—and what needs to be done at the local church level to address it.  Ultimately my hope would be that, rather than engaging in a dry legalism ("have you done your reading for the day?"), people, energized by the Holy Spirit, would discover the Bible as amazing, beautiful, powerful, informative, integrated, and life-changing, in short, more than worth the discipline it takes to give God's Word deep attention.  If that happens, by God's grace, we will see renewal in the church.

Trevin Wax: I appreciate your enthusiasm for encouraging the Church to love God's Word. Thanks for stopping by the blog today. For Kingdom People readers, if you'd like more information, check out the"Read the Bible for Life" website.

Originally published January 13, 2011.