Editor's note: Dr. Bob Utley, professor of hermeneutics, founded Bible Lesson International dedicated to empowering pastors and believers to interpret the Bible for themselves. Known for his Bible commentary series, the former East Texas Baptist University professor states that Christians should go back to the original meaning of the Bible and read the holy book as a unified message instead of just quoting few verses, regardless of our cultures, preferences, and theological training.
Recently China Christian Daily interviews Dr. Bob Utley to share with us on how to do Bible interpretation with the help of hermeneutics and how lay people can benefit from that.
China Christian Daily: Professor Bob Utley, could you please introduce yourself and your ministry first?
Dr. Bob Utley: I have been a pastor and a professor for 51 years. I have a college degree in religion, a master's degree in religion, a doctor's degree in religion from a school in East Texas. So I have been teaching the subject of hermeneutics now for all of these years. I have written detailed, exegetical commentaries on every Bible book, based on my hermeneutical approach, the church's approach at Antioch of Syria in the 2nd century. And that is what I try to present to modern people.
For the last ten years, I have been doing my Bible Lessons International, a ministry, to provide more academic commentaries to people around the world who may not have a chance to go to seminary. So we have these commentaries in 48 languages. They are all free. And it also includes several other things, an Old Testament survey and New Testament survey, a seminar on bible interpretation. Then every book of the Bible; sometimes, the subjects they cover are repeatedly repeated. So what I have done now is put special topics on active links in the commentaries. And that's the way to deal with this subject, without having the commentary three times longer than it necessarily has to be.
China Christian Daily: Can you share your faith testimony? How you converted to Christ.
Dr. Bob Utley: I grew up in a Christian home, and my mother shared with me about Jesus when I was about 12. I was called to preach very soon after that, but it scared me very badly. I was a shy person. I stuttered some, so I ran from God until I was 21 and felt like God was saying, now is the time. So that's when I committed my life to him.
I think very early, and I was susceptible to sin in my life. It wasn't some great sound like bank robbery, but I just felt like something was not right. I just always felt uncomfortable that somehow now things are right with God. But I remember walking home that night. I trusted God and looking up at the stars, and for the first time, not being afraid of God. SucSuch an excellent new relationship.
China Christian Daily: Since you have prosperous study and teaching experience of hermeneutics to pastors, the clergy, and Christians, why do we need to offer any help to read the Bible?
Dr. Bob Utley: Yes, hermeneutics comes from the Greek verb hermēneuō, which means "to interpret or explain." It's a set of principles on how to interpret an ancient wWhenext. When we get the Bible interpretation, we use another Greek word to lead out. We try to lead out the original author's intent in a passage. Now, what's unique about it? I think the hermeneutics system is, I believe, the only inspired person in Bible interpretation is the original author. So we must go back to the original author's history, not our history, not our personal preferences, not a denominational training. We must go back to the original author's writing intent, and we must read his entire message. Every book of the Bible is one complete message.
What has bothered me in the church is that I'm afraid we had tried to read the Bible on one hand and the morning newspaper on the other. And we try to make the Bible adaptable to our culture before we find out what it meant to the ancient audience to which it was written. So proper interpreters understand and explain the original text. So basically, I'm trying to provide the modern church. This is not my method. This is not something that I came up with. This is the method of the church in Antioch of Syria. Now, this is a church that sent out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. This school of Christian interpretation was the opposite of the school of Allegory from Alexandria in Egypt. So we call it the common-sense method of interpretation. We call it the historical, grammatical, lexical method, and it is textual-focused.
As I have grown up in the church, I have been surprised by how much disagreement among incredible Christians about what the Bible means. It seems to me that we're letting personal preferences or family traditions, or cultural traditions take over Bible interpretation. Bible interpretation must be based not on what I think of, what I want, but what I can document from the ancient text. If the Holy Spirit leads us to understand, why do Christians disagree so much? And I'm afraid it's because we do not take time to try to find out what it originally meant to people, and we tend to one verse and what happened is it that must be true? Well, we've got to find out what else the Bible says on that subject before we make that pronouncement.
I have grown up in a western culture, and I know that has influenced me. Still, the Bible is Near Eastern culture, and Near Eastern culture thinks about things differently. Middle Eastern people present truth in tension-filled pairs and stories and parables. In contrast, western people tend to be more Greek in their thinking. They do propositions, so I think we must let the Bible speak in context, the historical context of the original author, and the literary context of the author's writing.
China Christian Daily: How do churches apply hermeneutics to daily sermons and bible studies? How about those who don't have a chance or who are not theologically trained?
Dr. Bob Utley: I want to remind you that the Bible was written for the ordinary person, not for the scholar or the pastor. Now those of us who are specialists, we can help. So what I try to say to people is when most Christians Bible, they need to have some study Bible. And by me, it's a Bible wherein the margin tells you some of the manuscript options, the vocabulary options, and the parallel passages. These study Bibles also have a brief introduction: who wrote it when they wrote it, whom they wrote it to, why they wrote it, and a brief outline of the We try to train laypeople how to use a simple study Bible that once they learned that most of the information they can get from the Bible themselves.
Most of the sermons I hear come from a passage, and then the next week, it's a different passage. This violates this simple principle that every book of the Bible is a unified message. We need to train both our people and our leaders to teach or preach through books of the Bible. We should never take less than a paragraph because words only have meaning in sentences and sentences only have meaning in paragraphs. So if a pastor or a person wants to start with a particular book and even take several weeks or several months to go through it carefully, they would be better prepared.
China Christian Daily: As you mentioned, believers should learn to use a study Bible; how should they self-feed God's word or do personal Bible study?
Dr. Bob Utley: I suggest three books, the Gospel of John to understand who Jesus is, the book of Romans to understand Christianity, and the book of first John to know how we should live. If I was saying into a new Christian, you want to pick one of those books, read one chapter for a week, and read it over in several translations. If there are unique words there that you don't know their meaning, you need to do a word study. Now you can do that in a bible encyclopedia, but we've got to learn to spend more time and careful reading than just quoting one verse out of context.
It would help if you did it slowly, read the whole book. You can't know what the party is until you know what the whole book is about, so you read the whole book in one sitting. When you come back and say, "I'm going to look just at Chapter 1", Like, John 1:14 is crucial, so you need to spend enough time on that till you understand it. If you have the opportunity for a study Bible with footnotes or a brief commentary, then you're blessed by that. If you do not have that, then talking to other Christians will help you, and this allows the Spirit to speak to you through others.
China Christian Daily: You mean lay Christians need to read the Bible by themselves.
Dr. Bob Utley: Yes, we all need public worship, but if the only Bible study you get is what somebody else tells you it says, you need to know the Bible for yourself. I usually say to people that hermeneutics gives you a method to interpret the Bible for yourself. It gives you a shield against people, very opinionated religionists who say this is what it means. No, we need to check everyone who claims to speak for God by the Bible, which means we will have prayer and study time before accepting what someone else says the Bible says. So Christians need to be much more active and participate in public worship, private devotions, and private Bible study.
When the pastor changes, sometimes the theology changes. So that's why the believer has to know the Bible for themselves. There's such tremendous peace and joy in knowing the Bible for yourself. I always make Psalm 119:105 where it says that "thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. "Well, if you don't know the word, you don't have the lamp or the light. The Bible is for you, for the everyday person.
China Christian Daily: Many lay Christians may not get access to hermeneutics teachings or books; what should they do when there is something incomprehensible, or they hardly understand in the Bible? Do you have any suggestions or guidelines?
Dr. Bob Utley: The book that has been the most helpful for the layperson and me in English is a book called How to Read the Bible for Its Worth. It's written by two authors, Gordon D. Fee Douglas Stuart. Now, suppose that book is translated into Chinese. In that case, it's a simple way of dealing with the different kinds of genres in the Bible. It helps people to think in a non-technical way about how to do personal Bible study.
On my website Free Bible Commentary, I have many commentaries in Chinese. And I have my seminar on Bible interpretation. It's thirteen videos, and it's dubbed into simplified Mandarin. So as somebody was hungry, then this would be a source.
China Christian Daily: How should people know and understand hermeneutics in a better way?
Dr. Bob Utley: I often say that hermeneutics cannot tell you what the Bible means, but it can tell you what the Bible cannot mean. I usually use this illustration, professional pilots. They take off and land tens of thousands of times in their careers, but they use a checklist every time they take off. Well, the hermeneutics is the same checklist. It's meant to help believers not skip a step, a process in thinking through how to interpret this text. It does take a while to get into this because it's a new way of thinking that tries to go back to the original author. It does take some historical books, meaning there is some research involved.
I would say what I tell American people: there are Bible encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries, many of them in multiple volumes. They ought to buy used ones online and get much cheaper. And you can look up the name of the book to get the historical setting. You can look up the main words like justification, sanctification to get a vocabulary. You can look up place names like rivers and mountains, and those cyclopedias will tell you about those. Those kinds of things will help you understand the original author, who's the key to interpretation.
China Christian Daily: How should we apply the Bible to our times? There are some controversial issues in the church. For example, can a woman be ordained as a pastor as Paul forbids them to teach or assume authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12)?
Dr. Bob Utley: Quoting one verse and ignoring all the others is the hermeneutical problem. We can't let 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34 determine what we believe about women. My personal view is that all believers are God-called, gifted servants for ministry. I believe that the early Near East's patriarchal system is not God's will for every age and every country, just like I don't believe slavery is God's will for every age, in every country. The Bible never condemned slavery, but obviously, the principles helped us get away from that. And the same is true of women. There are women leaders in the Old Testament: Deborah, married as the national Israel leader, and women prophets. A deaconess is named Phoebe. We have women allowed to pray and preach in the church in 1 Corinthians 11:2 if they cover their heads.
It's no problem that all Christians are not going to agree with me, but I want to give you my evidence, look at it and come to your conclusion. As long as we're doing evangelism, helping people come to know Christ and grow in him, we can disagree on some of these things without being disagreeable. We're not looking for uniformity but unity. And there are different opinions by godly people on this. How do we apply this is a difficult question because the Bible does not tell us how to do that. I usually say several questions we need to ask when we look at a passage: what is this passage trying to say? How do I apply this passage to my life? How do I apply this passage to my day? So ideally, we want to take the message in its original context. Understand the truth because of Spirit Spirit living in us; we want to apply that same truth to our culture with the same power. But Christians will disagree, and we need to allow them the freedom to disagree as long as they do it in love.
China Christian Daily: As some of your commentaries have been translated into Chinese, do you have any word for the Chinese church and Christians?
Dr. Bob Utley: I believe that the Chinese church is more significant than any of us can imagine, and I am so glad that there is not denominational tension. I know there is an illegal underground church, but there is no denominational arrogance, bitterness, and judgmentalism. And I hope that the Chinese church will be an example for all the world on how we can get along with each other and not be so critical and judgmental when she is free to grow and reach out.
Also, I think we should be prepared for trust times because we have a different worldview. We believe that the Bible does give us the will of the one actual creator God. And so secular people, we make them very nervous. They don't understand us, so we've got to be careful that we act in love, that we speak in kindness, that we pray for our governments and the leaders. The time will come when we may have to stand up in love and suffered the consequences for Christ. As the Second Coming comes closer, persecution will be more and more severe for those of us who believe that Jesus is the Christ. So we've just got to be prepared for that. We cannot act in an ugly way. We give the people who detract from us ammunition when we fight back aggressively. We have the Holy Spirit, the word of God, eternal life, and victory; now we need to walk in it in peace, calm, and joy.
The interview is edited accordingly.