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Interpreting Scripture with Head and Heart – Dr David Starling

by | Thu, Sep 7 2017

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‘Far more important than what we bring to Scripture is what God does to us through Scripture,’ says author and academic Dr David Starling. In his new book, he makes the case that to read Scripture well, you need to engage both your head and your heart.

Dr Starling doesn’t believe that any method or ten-step process can do justice to the beauty of Scripture. Instead, he says we can learn most about reading the Scriptures by actually doing it. He unpacked his views on bible reading and interpretation, in an in-depth discussion with 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson. Read on to find out more, or listen to the podcast below.

The Art of Interpretation

Dr David Starling is head of the Bible and Theology department at Morling College in Sydney. His new book is Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes our interpretive habits and practices, and it was recently short-listed for the Australian Christian book of the year award.

The colon may seem intimidating, and some readers may not be familiar with hermeneutics as a concept, but Starling says his book is designed to be useful for anyone who wants to read the bible well. Hermeneutics, he explained, is just a fancy word for ‘the art of interpretation’.

‘It’s an art more than a science I think,’ he explained, ‘but it’s that discipline of learning how to understand and interpret our world, and in particular how to understand and interpret texts.’

Reading the bible requires a lot of interpretation, to understand the context of the times when it was created, the intentions of its authors and the audience it was written for. The final step is to understand how to apply the messages in Scripture to our own lives. So whenever we’re reading the bible, we’re doing a lot of interpreting. One of the big questions Starling tackles in his book is how to do it well.

An Attitude of Heart

He says we need to start by approaching the Scripture with openness. ‘The Psalms teach us to be illuminated, for light to shine into our eyes and our hearts and our minds. So that attitude of heart, as we come to Scripture, is the very first thing I think.’

Jesus is at the very heart of the Bible itself, and Dr Starling says he should also be central to our approach to the Bible. ‘We approach the bible in order to be lead to Jesus,’ he explained, ‘and in order to be taught by him how to go back to the Scripture and read it right.’

It’s also important to remember that the 66 books that make up the Bible were written by a number of different authors, who lived a long time ago, in cultures and times very different from our own.

‘Taking that seriously too, taking the humanity and historical situation of those readers is so important I think, without letting go of the fact that, in the mystery of how God works, in the whole story of his mission in the world, he has used what those human writers said to those original human readers to speak his word to us.’

‘So that complex relationship between the human and the divine authorship of Scripture, and the position of Jesus at the very centre of Scripture, at the crossroads of all the Scriptures, that’s the set of things to keep in mind, I think, as we read the bible.’

Sharper than a Sword

Academics have dedicated their careers to interpretive studies of the Bible, but Dr Starling is adamant that you don’t need a degree to understand it. ‘On the one hand,’ he said, ‘it’s absolutely true that there are disciplines involved in reading well, and there’s deep thought required. There are skills that you pick up over time, and there’s knowledge that you grow in as you read.’

But he says you can’t do justice to Scripture if you only approach it analytically, if you try to approach Bible reading as a science, not an art. ‘There’s something in the mystery, and the beauty, and the complexity of Scripture, that always is too rich and too deep to be caught up in the net of one single method, or technique, or 10 step process.’

‘We can speak about Scripture as if Scripture were some kind of specimen on the table, and the experts come in their white coats, and they cut it up, and they peer through their lenses, of various academic methods, down at the Scriptures, and look at it, like a snowflake under the microscope or something.’

But the Bible uses much more poetic language, explaining how God affects us through his word. ‘The word of God, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures, is described as living and active, and sharper than a sword, that cuts us as we read it. It slices us open and exposes who we are on the inside.’

‘So the idea that Scripture is inert, and that the expert applies techniques to Scripture, to extract the meaning out of a dead text, that might feel scientific to a modern Western theorist, but it’s not the way the bible asks us to approach the Scripture at all. It’s much more exciting, much more complicated, and much more dynamic than that I think.’

Like Riding a Bike

One of the central messages in Starling’s book is that the most important lessons about interpreting Scripture are within the Scriptures themselves. ‘So if you want to ride a bike, you learn bike riding mostly not by going to bike riding seminars, or watching YouTube videos, or reading bike riding manuals.’

‘You mainly learn bike riding by riding bikes. I think it’s something like that with reading Scripture. If you’re going to grow in the wisdom and the character that you need to read Scripture well, you learn it by doing it.’

Similarly, he says that we as modern readers can apprentice ourselves to the writers of the Bible, who describe their own worship, as well as the way they learned to understand God’s messages to them.

The Psalms, for example, are often seen as a training ground for worshippers and a pathway into the Bible. And Dr Starling points out that the Psalms describe us engaging with the Word both in private meditation and public conversation. He says both of these practices are essential to understanding Scripture.

He encourages us to make a daily habit of reflecting on God’s messages to us. ‘And also, in the light of day, and in the company of God’s people, proclaiming the story of God’s works, and celebrating it, and singing it to one another, and preaching it and hearing it preached.’

Dr Starling also believes we should metaphorically expand our conversation, to learn from people in the past who’ve struggled to understand God’s purposes for them. ‘I love the way that, in the book of Ruth for example, Boaz and Naomi and Ruth, the various characters in that story are all essential to one another.’

Naomi, the widowed, embittered economic refugee, Ruth, the loyal daughter-in-law who followed her into a strange new land, and Boaz, the wealthy local land-owner, are all very different characters. ‘None of them could arrive at a full and true and rich and deep understanding of the Scriptures that are beneath the story of Ruth, and the will of God for them, without one another.

‘It’s their encounter with each other, out of that, that the beauty of the story of Ruth emerges. And that’s a nice picture I think, of the way in which we need each other to read the bible well.’

Wrestling with Scripture

A lot of people are able to keep up regular Bible reading, but see it as an obligation or a chore. Neil Johnson asked Dr Starling whether you have to love Scripture to become a ‘good’ reader. ‘It’s not the phone-book or the IKEA instruction manual,’ he replied.

‘There’s something about the kind of personal communication that Scripture is, that requires us I think, if we read well, to read with our hearts as well as our heads. And again to go back to the Psalms, there’s language of sweetness, of radiance, of beauty and delight. That’s part of how the Psalmists frame their encounter with Scripture.’

‘Having said that, when the Psalmists speak about delighting in the Scriptures, or about the radiance of Scripture, sometimes they speak about their encounter with the promises of God and the laws of God, not as an easy and obvious and automatic one, where they look straight into the words on the page and immediately see beauty and joy and truth and happiness.’

The Psalmists talk about waiting patiently, and longing for God’s word, just as we sometimes do today. At times, we will wrestle
With Scripture, agonise and worry over it, pray desperately for help and guidance. ‘All that is part of the way the heart encounters Scripture I think,’ Dr Starling said.

‘But in all of that, both in the longing, searching for the light of Scripture to break forth in a way that we can see, and in the spontaneous delight that Scripture often gives us, in all of that, it’s a joining together I think of the head and heart, a kind of engaged encounter with Scripture that’s both our affections and our intellects engaged simultaneously.’

It’s this kind of engagement which Dr Starling tries to encourage in his book. The tradition of hermeneutics he grew up with focused on prior learning and assumptions, and aimed to build a toolkit of methods and techniques to apply in Bible study. ‘I don’t want to dismiss that kind of approach completely,’ he said, ‘but I do want to say, far more important than what we bring to Scripture is what God does to us through Scripture.’

‘I want to say let’s keep the focus primarily on the way Scripture approaches us, and the invitations that Scripture makes to us, and the wisdom that Scripture teaches us.’

The Search for Wisdom


stacks of books

Dr Starling cautions us that gaining the wisdom to truly understand Scripture takes a long time. But the Book of Proverbs describes wisdom as more precious than rubies, and encourages us to seek it out at any cost.

He wants us to aim for a balance of hunger and patience. ‘So that kind of combination of earnestly questing after a better reading, and patiently putting in the time and spending the years to grow a deep and true wisdom.’

It’s important, again, to remember here the difference between wisdom and knowledge. ‘In interpreting Scripture,’ Dr Starling said, ‘we’re not just talking about being able to write a good academic paper on it. We’re talking about knowing how to live in light of it.’

No level of expertise will help you to live as God asks of us. Only living with His word, and being open to it every day, can we grow to truly understand it. ‘It requires the kind of heart that is open to Scripture,’ Starling said, ‘and the Scripture formed wisdom that knows how to apply its message in our own situation.’

The title of his book describes hermeneutics as an apprenticeship. Neil Johnson asked Dr Starling who was the apprentice he imagined while writing this guide. ‘All of us are apprentices,’ he replied, ‘and we never graduate from this apprenticeship.’

The book will be helpful to anyone working in ministry, whose job it is to interpret and understand the Bible. ‘But I hope this book is more broadly useful than that,’ he said. ‘I hope it’s a book that’s useful for anyone who’s serious about wanting to read the Bible well and invest time and energy into it.’

‘I try, in each chapter, not to catapult us into the theory as it were, and the detail, but to start, in each chapter, inviting the reader in, and foregrounding the kind of issues and questions that this particular chapter is focusing on, and the way in which it relates to the everyday questions and struggles that we have as Christians.’

‘So I’m hoping it’s a book that’s certainly useful to students of Scripture, and of theology, Pastors, preachers and so on, but also to all kinds of people who read the Bible, and want to apply it faithfully and well in their situation.’

Dr David Starling’s Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship is available to buy now in print and digital formats.

Want to learn more about how to interpret the Bible? Chuck Missler answers some burning questions, and offers some invaluable study tips and tools in Hermeneutics 101.

Listen to the audio interview here