Dr. Bill Helton
Pearly Gates or Pearl Gates
I can vividly recall the circumstances surrounding my maternal grandmother’s death more than forty years ago. My mother was a God fearing woman, as was her mother, my Granny Woods. My grandmother entered the hospital due to a sore on her foot stemming from diabetes. No one knew that within two days she would die. The night before her death, we visited her in the hospital and she told my mother of a vision she had of heaven. The Lord Jesus welcomed her and she entered through a gate that was an archway consisting of pearls.
Once inside, she saw a beautiful place prepared for her. When she died the next day, my mother was convinced the vision was from God. My mother also believed that the gates of heaven were arches made of pearls. There was no chance of convincing my mother that each gate was not an arch made of pearls. However, there was a slight problem with my mother’s interpretation. The Book of Revelation says, “21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was a single pearl.” (Revelation 21:21a, NASB95)
The power of family influences, as well as other cultural influences and experiences, can have a significant impact on our understanding of the Bible. No matter how powerful and personal the source of our understanding might be, the Word of God must stand over and be a judge of our understanding.
This article will deal with several facets of one of the interpretation issues I find difficult for students to grasp, that being their personal context. Often in sermons and Bible studies, we hear mention of historical, cultural, and literary context. However, one of the most important, yet overlooked, contexts of Bible study is the reader’s personal context. It consists of all of our acquired preunderstandings and experiences.
What are we talking about when we talk about preunderstanding? According to Grasping God’s Word, preunderstanding refers “to all of our preconceived notions and understandings that we bring to the text, which have been formulated, both consciously and subconsciously, before we actually study the text in detail.”
While our ideas and notions are sometimes accurate and helpful, many times, they are inaccurate, hinder us in our study, and ultimately lead to wrong conclusions. All aspects of our culture and our experiences can be major factors in shaping our preunderstandings.
They include things learned; within the family unit, heard in hymns, other Christian music, pop songs, jokes, and nonbiblical literature. They also include what we have learned in Sunday school, church services, Bible studies, and our personal Bible reading.
Duvall and Hays sum up the content and influences of American culture this way, “it is comprised of Big Macs, Barbie dolls, Tiger Woods, and Lady Gaga all mixed in with George Washington, Babe Ruth, the Mississippi River, Wal-Mart, and Facebook.”  Whether we invite them in or not, our culture and experiences are constantly creeping into our study of the Bible.
Another danger related to preunderstanding is that of familiarity. If we are overly familiar with the passage, we tend not to be as serious with our study. As we revisit a passage we have studied in-depth, it is tempting to think that we know everything there is to know about that passage. When we approach the biblical text with this kind of preunderstanding, we tend to skip over serious study assuming we already have all the answers.
In order to get the most out of our study, we must allow the Holy Spirit to give us a fresh view of the text and help us dig deeper if there are things in the passage we have not yet discovered. The more familiar you become with the Bible, the greater this danger becomes.
I will mention one final danger. Coming to the text with a predetermined theological viewpoint, “that is, we start into a text with a specific slant we are looking for, and we use the text merely to search for details that fit with our agenda. Anything that does not fit in with the meaning we are looking for we simply skip or ignore.”
A good clear understanding of theological issues is important and is often very helpful in understanding the meaning of a text. However, even theologians and theological viewpoints stand under, not over, the authority of God’s word. (click to Tweet)
This is a deliberate action where we “stand over” a text in judgment of that text rather than seeking to understand the God given meaning of the text. A good clear understanding of theological issues is important and is often very helpful in understanding the meaning of a text.
I think it is safe to say that Christians do not intentionally misread the Bible. It seems almost automatic for us to transport the biblical text, written thousands of years ago, into our own modern culture. Duvall and Hays call this tendency to transport the biblical text into our cultural world “interpretational reflex.”
The major danger of interpretational reflex is that it often establishes a set of parameters from our culture that makes it impossible to grasp the text in its original cultural context. For example, we often ask or hear the question, “What would Jesus do?” Unfortunately, when we answer that question, we often limit our answer to the context of our own culture. In other words, we answer the question in terms of what the heroes of our culture would do or what the norms of our culture demand we do in any given situation.
Granted, total objectivity in interpretation is impossible. However, as followers of Jesus Christ we are not striving for a completely neutral and objective viewpoint. Ideally, our goal is to hear what God has to say to us through a given biblical text.
Thus, it is imperative that we approach the text through faith and dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Duvall and Hays point out, “This type of objectivity has to do with preventing our preunderstanding, our culture, our familiarity, or our laziness from obscuring the meaning that God has intended for us in the text.”
Read, read, read and
study, study, study but never assume your personal context is not affecting
your understanding of Scripture.
Personal Biography Dr. Bill Helton
Retired pastor, Professor of Homiletics and Bible at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville Kentucky. Dr. Bill Helton lives in northern Bell County Kentucky along the Cumberland River with his wife of more than forty years Brenda who is a retired staff member from Clear Creek Baptist Bible College.
He preaches, serves as interim pastor, leads Bible studies, and serves as the resident Logos Bible Software Trainer for the his College. His doctorate is in the area of Church Growth.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 139.
 Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 141.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 140.
 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 462.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 92.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 146.