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3 Observations from Teaching Biblical Interpretation

For many international organizations working in China, the transition to local leadership can be a challenging one. In particular, it is not always easy to achieve high levels of spiritual formation when many local leaders are either first generation believers or fairly recent converts. One organization I know recently identified five local colleagues—based on their gifting and experience—as likely future leaders within the organization. These women, for they are all female, then successfully applied for a grant to fund their own three-year program of leadership training, and they asked me to provide the formal theological training and spiritual formation components. We have just finished our first two-month-long course on biblical interpretation, with the ladies listening to twelve hours of recorded lectures in Mandarin, joining me for discussions, and answering many homework and examination questions emphasizing the application of exegetical skills in real world situations.

The most exciting part of the class for me was watching these people—fairly mature Christians who have led studies of their own in the past—come to the realization that allegorical interpretation 寓意释经 (“the first of the five fishes Jesus gave us for sustenance is prayer”) and spiritual interpretation 灵意释经 (“what ‘fishes’ or ‘loaves’ has Jesus used to feed your hungry soul?”) say far more about the interpreter than the text. It was a great privilege to help these students learn the discipline of sticking within the boundaries of a given passage. Their newfound confidence in knowing God’s word—and in knowing God himself—gives me great joy.

The most interesting thing that came up in class had to do with the ways in which my students viewed the different elements of biblical interpretation. In this course we spent a good deal of time looking at the five different factors that when explored can help readers recover the author’s original intended message: context, historical and cultural background, word meanings, grammatical/logical constructions, and literary genres. Several of my students remarked that of all these topics they found grammatical/logical constructions to be most difficult to analyze within a given Bible passage. I hadn’t expected this. I assumed the ancient near eastern historical and cultural content, so different from what my students learned about in school, would have been most foreign/intimidating. As I’ve had time to reflect on this, I wonder if their difficulty is related to the relatively low grammar content of the Chinese language: in a highly context dependent language there is less need for grammar, and so perhaps native Chinese speakers are less accustomed to seeking logical clues within the formal structure of a given sentence or paragraph. Possibly, but I think this is something worthy of further consideration.

Finally, the most difficult question I received appeared at first deceptively simple: why is it that almost all Chinese preaching and small group study relies on allegorical or spiritual readings of the Bible? While they quickly recognized the value of closer readings of a given biblical text, my students—two of whom have been in the church all their lives—wanted to know why they have heard so little exegetical interpretation in church. Why does no one in their churches talk about how to read the Bible responsibly? With all the muddled theology and outright heresy floating around in the Christian community, why don’t Chinese pastors pay more attention to these issues? In my response to these questions, I mentioned all the historical reasons why formal biblical training was so limited in China, and I also talked about the recent increases in the availability of biblical training as a harbinger that these students should expect to see things change in their lifetimes.

A lot more could be said historically and culturally about this last question, but that would require another blog post. Personally, I found that this question set my mind racing in a different yet not unrelated direction: what kinds of Bible reading have I been modeling? What have the studies I’ve been involved in over the years demonstrated to my fellow believers about how the Bible works, or how to responsibly apply it in our daily lives? I have a long-standing study that will start up again next month, and this experience has made me think again about the best ways to organize and direct time spent studying the word with local believers.

Swells in the Middle Kingdom

"Swells in the Middle Kingdom" began his life in China as a student back in 1990 and still, to this day, is fascinated by the challenges and blessings of living and working in China.View Full Bio

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