Bible teacher Nancy Guthrie hosts a weekly podcast called “Help Me Teach the Bible.” Each week, she invites a guest (who is typically a Bible teacher) to be interviewed. I have found these interviews to be helpful and encouraging as I think about preparing to teach and lead discussions in community groups. In this column, I will share with you some of the insights from this podcast that have been helpful to me.
Since the podcasts are conversations between Nancy Guthrie and her guests, I present them in question and answer format. Not all of the answers are exact quotes; some are summarized. Some of my views are at the bottom.
On 4/19/2017 the guest on the podcast was Vern Poythress. He is in his 43rd year as a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Poythress has published many books, but his most recent is Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation.
QWhat is the most important principle for us to keep in mind as we go through the process of interpreting the Bible?
AWe must realize as we read that it is God who is speaking. We deal with Him, live, in real time, as we read. These are not just human authors. Although clearly the human authors participated in the writing of scripture, and culture and history played a significant role, it is God who speaks to us through Holy Spirit as we read.
QHow do I separate my ideas from God’s ideas as I read the Bible?
AUnderstand that this scripture is about God and His purposes, not about me and my purposes. It is all too easy to read the Bible through the lens of American culture. American culture is basically self-centered. But God’s purposes are vast. They span all of the world, and all of history. We must understand what God has been doing and what He is doing and what He is going to be doing, to give context to the present reading of scripture. We need to put our situations in proper perspective.
QWhat’s the best way to interpret and teach a story from the Old Testament?
APoythress advocates the “redemptive-historical correlation.” This answers the question “How does this scripture fit into God’s overall plan for salvation?” This is significantly different from a typical approach to an OT story. Here is a typical approach:
- discover and explain the moral lesson of the story
- research and understand the historical/cultural background of the story
- use the results of 1) and 2) to make the story relevant and meaningful to your audience
Poythress says that all of this is good, but it’s not enough. In addition, we need to locate this story in the history of God’s plan of salvation. How does Jesus Christ fit into this story? Does it point to Him, or does it demonstrate our need for Him? Is this story, or are any of the people in this story, mentioned in the New Testament? We can learn a lot from the way that the NT uses the OT.
QWhat common mistakes do beginning Bible teachers make?
- Believing that everyone has the right to their own interpretation of the Bible. This statement comes from pride and self-centeredness. But this is God’s Word. God is God, and we must not forget that. When He speaks, we must listen. We don’t always get our way. This Bible is God’s truth, even if we don’t like what it says in some places.
- Overuse of commentaries and other opinions. It’s best to study the passage for yourself first. Let God speak to you. Interact with Him over the text. Recognize that commentaries are not authoritative. They can be mistaken. Take only what is good from them. Don’t let the commentary replace your interaction with the text and with God’s voice. Study the passage for yourself first, then don’t be afraid to look at the commentary for help with specific questions. They can be helpful.
- Neglecting the Christ-centered character of scripture. It’s more than good or bad moral examples. They are helpful, but don’t stop there. Look for Jesus in the passage.
- Spending too much time in the historical/cultural background. It’s often interesting, but doesn’t drive the essential meaning of the text. You can get caught up in “interesting” when you should get caught up in “life-changing”.
How do you prepare your lessons for teaching the Bible? As we read the Word, we must interpret it both to increase our understanding and to help us communicate the Word to the classes we’re going to lead.
Poythress’ focus is on interpretation of the Old Testament (OT). Specifically, he says, we must look beyond the obvious moral and practical lessons that the OT stories teach us to see how the Old Testament points to Christ. The Bible is the “history of salvation through Jesus Christ.”
To illustrate what this means, I would suggest that you look at one of the resources that is included in the ESV Study Bible. (Poythress was one of the translators for the ESV.) It’s called “History of Salvation in the Old Testament: Preparing the Way for Christ”. If you don’t have an ESV Study Bible you can read it for free online (www.esv.org) and you can read this particular resource at this address:
For nearly every chapter of the OT, Poythress shows how it points to salvation in Christ.
As teachers in Salem Alliance community groups, one of the biggest challenges that we face is understanding how our 21st-century American culture impacts our view of what it means to be a Christ-follower. Even if we do understand it, it’s a real challenge to get people to see how God’s Word cuts through culture. If we can help people see the difference between the two cultures, we have proclaimed God’s Word effectively.
If we can learn to see Jesus’ redemptive work in Old Testament stories, we can begin to learn to see His work in our stories as well.
What do you think of Poythress’ approach? Does it make sense to you? Could you use his methods in teaching? Please leave a comment (below) and let’s discuss.