Occasional Paper

‘Do You Understand What You Are Reading?’

Toward a Faithful Evangelical Hermeneutic of Scripture

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Editor's Note

This Lausanne Occasional Paper was produced by a sub-team of the Lausanne Theology Working Group in the lead up to the Fourth Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. This strategic once-in-a-generation gathering will be held in Incheon, South Korea from 22-28 September 2024.

Introduction: Evangelical Unity in Diversity

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ is Philip’s question to the Ethiopian official who is poring over Isaiah 53:7–8 (Acts 8:27–33). The Ethiopian needs help to make sense of the biblical text, and Philip, led by the Spirit, is there to guide him. Luke remarks, ‘Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus’ (Acts 8:35). Philip becomes a model reader of Scripture. As one whose mind is ‘opened . . . [to] understand the Scriptures’ (Luke 24:45), Philip explains to the Ethiopian that Isaiah was speaking about the Messiah who would suffer and die yet rise from the dead for the forgiveness of sins for all nations (Luke 24:46–47). As his baptism suggests, the Ethiopian accepts Philip’s reading of Isaiah and believes in Jesus as the Christ. Philip thus offers a Gentile, an unlikely reader of Scripture, a compelling interpretation of Isaiah that leads to the faithful proclamation and acceptance of the gospel. How evangelicals today read Scripture is at the heart of who we are and what we do. Philip’s question, then, is for us: Do we evangelicals understand what we are reading?

Evangelical diversity on the global stage

Seeing unity in the diversity of Scripture is a long-standing issue in biblical interpretation. How can a literary product of so many different authors, genres, and perspectives speak with any discernible unity? Evangelicals have insisted that the very nature of Scripture as God-breathed implies its unity, and that an appropriate biblical-theological perspective based on an overarching theme or storyline, or an interpretation that is properly ‘theological’, unifies the diversity so that Scripture can and does speak with a single voice. There is, however, a more difficult ‘unity in diversity’ issue. Increasingly diverse readings of Scripture are espoused, especially as evangelicals globally are more heterogeneous than ever before. As interpretations reflect greater divergence, one is forced to ask the question of faithfulness. Are these divergent readings still ‘evangelical’? How do we as a global evangelical community come to terms with the diversity of evangelical readings? Is there a hermeneutic of Scripture that would equally be unquestionable in its evangelical character and still allow for contextual diversity reflective of global evangelicalism today? And is such an ‘evangelical hermeneutic’ credible or even possible? 

Evangelicals have held that the nature of Scripture should control the way it is read. Because Scripture is produced by God’s superintending inspiration, it must speak with a voice beyond its human authors. Evangelical readings seek to discern that voice in Scripture that discloses God’s nature as redeemer and God’s plan of salvation for humankind. However, the diverse nature of Scripture, that Scripture is a collection of various human authors, should also inform the way it is read. On the one hand, we must account for the diversity God has allowed in the production of Scripture and likewise celebrate the diversity of readers and readings in evangelicalism today. On the other hand, we must carefully consider how Scripture unifies the diverse voices of its authors and begin to apply that same search for unity to our own diverse perspectives. In other words, the diverse yet unified nature of Scripture itself must inform and guide evangelical readings of Scripture. 

Thus, the goal of this paper is twofold. The first is to search carefully for unity as evangelical readers of Scripture and to lay out the defining characteristics of an evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture that is faithful to the evangelical tradition, not least as it is embodied by the Lausanne Movement. The second is to consider how to apply hermeneutical faithfulness to the diversity of local contexts and readings, and to foster a faithful Scripture reading culture for evangelical churches in these contexts.

The diversity of global evangelicalism, then, is not so much a problem as it is a strength. As the Willowbank Report suggested in 1978, hermeneutical faithfulness is enhanced when traditional approaches to interpretation account for the cultural diversity of the readers in a ‘contextual approach.’ So the report suggests, ‘Out of the context in which his word was originally given, we hear God speaking to us in our contemporary context.’[1] The Lausanne Covenant had earlier implicitly recognized the strength of diversity in how the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture today: ‘He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes, and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.’[2] 

The strength of diversity furthermore is evident in Acts 2 and the Pentecostal unity experienced by the Jews ‘from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5) who in unison under the Spirit’s guidance accepted Peter’s reading of the Scriptures. The result was that ‘[a]ll the believers were together and had everything in common’ (Acts 2:44), including, we presume, their reading of Scripture. Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, the readers’ diverse contexts aid in finding fresh insights into the fuller understanding of God’s truth in Scripture. As soon as readers’ contexts and the work of the Spirit are considered, a hermeneutical community comes into view: ‘the task of understanding the Scriptures belongs not just to individuals but to the whole Christian community, seen as both a contemporary and a historical fellowship.’[3] With the help of the same Spirit, the whole (universal; catholic) church reads, believes, and lives the holy Scriptures. Thus, taking center stage in the faithful reading of Scripture is the church as the universal communion of saints, in all places and in all times. The church in all its catholic diversity is tasked with declaring and displaying its evangelical unity, faithfully reading, believing, and living the gospel message at the heart of the Scriptures.

Reading Scripture together as evangelicals

Still, when we evangelicals do not share a common confessional document or church authority structure, finding unity in diversity is a difficult task. Specifically, what it means to be ‘evangelical’ in our hermeneutic is challenging to define. Missiologist Paul Hiebert long ago theorized a ‘typology of sets’, differentiating a ‘bounded set’ from a ‘centered set’ to define what it meant to be ‘Christian’ in the mission context.[4] If ‘Christian’ were a bounded set, there would be clear boundaries which when crossed, it would no longer be Christian. If a centered set, the boundaries are not as important as the center and so ‘Christian’ would be defined by its commitment to the center. Applying this typology to what it means to be ‘evangelical’, Albert Mohler suggests a combinative ‘center-bounded set’ where the center is clearly defined as ‘love for Christ and enthusiasm for the gospel’ and then the boundaries defined in light of the center (as first-level doctrines rather than second-level or third-level doctrines).[5]

Finding the typology of sets helpful for defining ‘evangelical’, Kevin Vanhoozer proposes another analogy from the nautical world, the ‘anchored set.’[6] In this set, the anchor is grounded in the seabed and the ship, though free to move with the waves, is kept from drifting freely by the attached chain and anchor. In an anchored-set view of evangelical hermeneutics, Scripture (or God speaking in Scripture) is the anchor that is grounded and fixed while the ship is the church that floats on the sea above with the waves and currents. As the winds and waves (of doctrine, Eph 4:14) moves the ship wherever the sea wishes, the anchor and the chain keep it steady and safe. At the same time, the ship is still free to move with the currents above, expressing its contextual diversity, even while remaining firmly attached to the anchor below. 

The chain that connects the ship to the anchor is tradition. If Timothy George is correct in defining evangelicalism as a ‘renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy’,[7] then the ‘Great Tradition’ of evangelicalism stretches back to the apostolic church through the one catholic church including the early church, the Protestant Reformation, puritanism, and the evangelical mission movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A faithful evangelical hermeneutic stands in continuity with how the church historically has read Scripture for faith, life, and mission. Thus, the anchored set analogy keeps evangelical hermeneutics grounded in God’s Word (canon sense), connected with the universal church of the past and present (catholic sensibility), and engaged with local cultures in every place (contextual sensitivity).[8] The vessel of the church is free to move with the currents yet kept from drifting by the chain of tradition that connects it to the anchor of God’s Word.

Considering the above, this paper proposes a faithful evangelical hermeneutic that accounts for canon sense, catholic sensibility, and contextual sensitivity, using the anchored set analogy. Evangelicals have long held that the Bible is the Word of God and that this affirmation of the divine nature of Scripture is critical for how it is read. Thus, this paper begins with canon sense by affirming what the Bible is and what it is for, especially in relation to the Lausanne Movement. Section (1) affirms that Scripture is an inspired human-divine discourse with the goal of forming citizens of the gospel (1.1) and reviews an evangelical theology of Scripture using Luke’s theology of ‘the word of God’ in the Book of Acts (1.2). Because the anchor of Scripture is lodged in its historical and literary contexts, which may rightly be seen as the seabed, Section (2) examines why reading in context is critical for a credible and faithful evangelical hermeneutic and reflects on the importance of the historical (2.1), literary (2.2), and canonical (2.3) contexts of Scripture in biblical interpretation.

Moving from canon sense to catholic sensibility, Section (3) addresses what it means to be evangelical in our hermeneutic of Scripture. Reading evangelically is important because it is what keeps the ship securely chained to the anchor and from dangerously drifting into misinterpretation and discredit. At the core of an evangelical hermeneutic is the gospel of Jesus Christ (3.1), which has implications for not only understanding the content of the Bible but also the way it is read, submitted to, and lived out. Evangelicals globally recognize that the Scriptures reveal and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that people are transformed when they encounter and submit to that gospel. Evangelicals furthermore acknowledge that Scripture is not only written by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration but also interpreted by the Spirit’s illumination (3.2). This illumination in the interpretative process is internal guidance and discernment as part of the catholic church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the empowerment to live and witness according to the Word of God. The section is rounded out by a reflection on the critical role of tradition in a faithful evangelical hermeneutic (3.3). Evangelical reading must be located in the larger history of the church with the recognition that reading evangelically is part of the Great Tradition of biblical interpretation stretching back to the apostolic church. This ecclesial perspective (catholic sensibility) becomes the chain that not only connects today’s evangelical churches to Scripture but also becomes the foundation for consensus that unites the diversity inevitable in contextual sensitivity as global evangelicals read Scripture from our own contexts.

Finally, Section (4) focuses on contextual sensitivity and the goal of developing a Bible ‘reading culture’ for evangelical churches in various contexts. Proposing a faithful evangelical hermeneutic presupposes the goal of developing a ‘local hermeneutical culture’[9] of the gospel. Thus, this important section begins with a fresh look at the unity and diversity of contextual hermeneutics (4.1) and how an evangelical reading culture must account for contextual diversity and cultural blind spots if it is to be missionally relevant. The section then turns to two examples of local Bible reading culture. The first example puts forward ‘collaborative reading’ in pluralistic settings (4.2) where contextual diversity is embraced without sacrificing theological depth and fidelity, thus, making the mission witness of the church front and center. The second example appeals for a more robust Bible reading culture in volatile contexts (4.3) where unsound hermeneutics may lead to disastrous consequences. A faithful evangelical hermeneutic in such contexts rightly exhorts an identity for the people of God characterized by covenantal love for God and others, and that which leads steadily to Christ and his lordship.

The Doctrine of Scripture

What the Bible is and what it is for

The Bible: Inspired human-divine discourse

A Two-part Bible: While the word Bible (Gk. biblos) means a book or scroll, the Christian Bible is not precisely one book, but rather an extraordinary set of writings. These writings are of varied literary genres and collected over several centuries. The Christian Bible consists of two parts: the larger part, the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament (OT); and the shorter part, the Greek writings of the New Testament (NT). Jewish believers consider the Hebrew writings as their canonical Scriptures. Christians, who include these foundational Hebrew writings as part of their Bible, but unlike the Jews, consider the New Testament writings as trustworthy documents of their faith in the same God of Israel. Christians hold to the central belief that Israel’s God has climactically revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The Bible documents the narrative of God’s redemptive actions in and through the people of Israel, and ultimately in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah, a redemption that encompasses the whole of creation. The Christian Bible is thus an exceptional library of writings which has become the foundation of the church’s faith and practice over the millennia, and read by Christians in translations in thousands of languages.

The relation between the Old and New Testaments: First, Jesus and his followers, including every author of the NT writings, saw the Christian gospel as essentially rooted in the faith of God’s people, as found in the OT. Israel was called to be a holy, covenantal nation, who would bless the whole world, but failed as a people to fulfil this redemptive vocation. Jesus fulfilled this vocation of Israel and initiated a renewed covenant, anticipated in the Scriptures, and now to be fulfilled in and through the lives of the people of God. Christians see a fundamental continuity of God’s redemptive purposes in the two Testaments, even though there are obvious elements of discontinuity between them.[10] 

Jesus read and interpreted Israel’s Scriptures, declaring that they testified of him. The disciples would slowly grasp the magnitude of this truth after the resurrection of Jesus, as their minds were opened by Jesus and the Spirit. For example, when Jesus claimed that he was the true vine, a metaphor used of Israel in the OT, he was making the serious claim that, from now on, God’s people were being newly constituted in him.[11] 

Second, the writers of the NT employed the OT texts in a variety of ways, drawing on the foundational revelation in a distinctive and multiform manner. We need to remember that the OT was ‘the Bible’ of the early Christians. Some explicitly cited OT texts; others often paraphrased, summarized, or alluded to OT passages.[12] This rich reality that confronts us when we read the Bible serves to highlight a fundamental truth: The God revealed in the OT as creator and God of the patriarchs and prophets is the same God who has revealed himself ultimately in Christ, in whom ‘all the fulness of the Deity lives in bodily form’ (Col 2:9). The writers of the NT express in unique ways a common conviction that the core features of the Christian gospel are foreshadowed in the multi-layered narratives, laws, poetry and prophetic writings of the OT. A faithful reading of the Bible will discover and uphold this beautiful relationship between the Testaments.

The human-divine Word of God and faithful hermeneutics: One obvious characteristic of the Bible is its human nature: the writings were written by God’s people, Jewish and Christian, and collected over generations. These writings, using a multiplicity of literary genres and devices, reflect the redemptive dealings of God in particular historical and cultural contexts. Evangelicals hold to a divine authority of these writings, that these writings authentically communicate God’s will, purpose, and redemptive interventions in diverse situations. They believe in the dual nature of the Bible, as both human and divine. The Bible is thus God’s Word given to us in human language, in a particular history, time, and space. In this sense, God is the ultimate author of the Scriptures, orchestrating through the life-giving Spirit, the writing down of each part of the Bible.

Evangelicals believe that it is absolutely essential to recognize this dual nature of the Bible, just as we uphold the divine mystery of the incarnation of Jesus, the eternal Word of God, who entered concrete history in real human flesh (John 1:1, 14). As a direct consequence of this encultured reality, faithful biblical hermeneutics, that is, the interpretation and application of the Scripture, becomes an urgent necessity for responsible readers of the Bible. Evangelical hermeneutics labors to proclaim this life-giving contemporary message that is found in these particular historical contexts.[13] Thus, biblical hermeneutics faithful to the Scriptures is what evangelical Christians embrace as a supreme need of the church in the world. 

The inspiration of Scripture: A foundational biblical claim held by evangelical Christians is that the writings of the Bible have divine life-giving authority, sometimes referred to as a double authorship of Scripture. The human-divine discourse found in the writings of the OT and NT has its ultimate source and authority in God. God’s people through the centuries have recognized these writings as trustworthy and true. God authorizes the writings of the human writers who are participants in a faith community.[14]

This fundamental claim of the inspiration of Scripture is found in the key text of 2 Timothy 3:14–17, one of those few places where a biblical text explicitly speaks on the subject. Writing to his associate Timothy, the apostle Paul reminds him about the sacred writings to which he has been led from childhood. Paul asserts that the Scripture makes people wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus and is essential for the transformative growth of God’s people, since these writings are ‘inspired’ by God. This idea of inspiration, within this human-divine reality of the Bible, deserves to be carefully unpacked. 

First of all, by ‘all Scripture’, Paul here refers to the Hebrew OT, since the writings of the NT had not yet been put together. The Christian church, while it holds to the inspiration of the OT, also sees the canonical writings of the NT as equally inspired.[15] Secondly, Paul uses the term theopneustos, a word found only here in the New Testament. This word, a combination of two Greek words, is often translated as ‘inspiration’ or ‘God-breathed.’ 

Third, inspiration is a metaphor for the life-giving breath of God, God’s divine authority manifested through the message of the Scriptures. The biblical reader’s mind is directed to the seminal text of Genesis 2:7, where God’s breath brought life to the humans. This human analogy is the best way to think of God revealing himself in the human-divine discourse in the Bible. The Spirit works with human authors and communities of God’s people to preserve the trustworthy divine revelation for the world. 

Fourth, Paul does not explain the mechanics of inspiration, that is, he does not explain how the inspiration takes place (cf. 2 Pet 1:19–21). However, inspiration of Scripture should never be confused with an idea of divine dictation—a view held, for example, in Islam—for then huge sections of the biblical writings would be incomprehensible if we embraced this framework of understanding.[16]

Thus, we affirm that the inspiration of the Bible (as God-breathed) is a metaphor for the powerful reality of the life-giving nature of the Bible. Scripture has God’s authorizing power to bring life and to build up women and men in righteousness. Divine inspiration empowers the efficacy of the text, equipping God’s people for various good works they have been called to engage in (2 Tim 3:17; Eph 2:10). Hence, evangelical Christians recognize the demands of a faithful and relevant hermeneutic of Scripture, enabled by the Holy Spirit, to bring this life-giving message to a world in need of redemption. 

As The Lausanne Covenant (1974) states: ‘For God’s revelation in Christ and Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church evermore of the many-colored wisdom of God.’[17]

The authority of Scripture: As explained above, evangelicals firmly hold on to the divinely-authorized and life-giving message of the Bible. A variety of words and phrases are employed to convey what they see as the uniquely central role of Scripture in their faith and proclamation. Thus, evangelicals believe that the Scriptures are reliable and trustworthy as human-divine discourse, where God reveals himself and his purposes, especially his redemptive purposes for the whole world as revealed in Israel and culminating in Jesus Christ. Evangelicals see the Scriptures as trustworthy and an authoritative record of God’s dealing with his people over the centuries. Therefore, evangelicals believe in the paramount responsibility to engage in faithful hermeneutics—the rightful interpretation of biblical texts and their appropriate application—so as to bring God’s transformative redemption into the lives of individuals and communities.

The purpose of the Bible: Forming gospel-citizens

Forming gospel-citizens: The essential purpose of the writings of the Christian Bible proceeds from the very nature of the Bible described above. Since the Bible documents divine self-disclosure, the central purpose is to form gospel citizens who bring God’s revelation to all the peoples of the world. 

This divine revelation, conclusively fulfilled in the person, life, and kingdom message of Jesus the Messiah, demands that the church be formed as faithful citizens of the kingdom, living a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. The church, as Christ’s body, is called to become a Scripture-oriented people—those who embody the good news of Christ’s kingdom to the whole world. The Scriptures help God’s people to learn from Christ and the Spirit forms the mind of Christ.[18]

The first five books of the OT, the Torah, meaning teaching and guidance, were intended that Israel would constantly meditate on it, live by it, and thus experience all-round human flourishing on the earth (Psalm 1). In a sense the whole of the OT and the NT function in similar ways. The life and teaching of Christ Jesus for Christians who believe that he has fulfilled the OT and in whom dwells the fulness of the Deity now serve as the new Torah, the law of Christ, that shapes their lives in Christ-likeness.[19]

Forming a faithful disciple-making church: Through the message of the Bible, faithfully interpreted according to its context and purpose, and proclaimed in reverent obedience to Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God forms a people of peoples, and God’s life-giving kingdom and will is being established on earth. The ultimate purpose of God’s revelation is that people of every nation become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and live out God’s reign on the earth. As evangelicals, we believe that the church is called to live out this gospel as faithful witnesses and boldly proclaim the gospel of king Jesus till he returns.[20] 

The Bible provides guidance to the responsible reader as to how to declare and display God’s kingdom-life. Evangelicals, committed to this task of evangelizing and spreading the kingdom of God on earth, find their foundations in the teachings of the Bible. The Bible provides the divine bases for all the redemptive actions of the church as she engages in acts of proclamation and compassion, justice and peace—making disciples of all peoples on earth. 

An evangelical theology of Scripture

‘So the Word of God spread’

‘So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith’ (Acts 6:7) reads the first of several Lukan summaries about the progress of the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles.[21] The meaning of the ‘word of God’ is hard to pin down as Luke’s use of ‘word’ (Gk. logos) is polysemic. Beginning with the former ‘book’ (logos) that Luke’s Gospel is (Acts 1:1), to the apostolic ‘ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4), to the ‘message’ (logos) God sent to the people of Israel, to the ‘message’ of salvation to Gentiles (Acts 13:26), to the ‘word’ of his grace (Acts 20:32), the logos of God’s powerful ‘word’ increases and grows in Acts. This logos is not the Johannine incarnate Word but rather the proclamation of ‘the good news of peace through Jesus Christ’ (Acts 10:36). Thus, for Luke, ‘the Word of God is the Word about Jesus.’[22]

The starting point of an evangelical theology of Scripture is Scripture itself. How did the biblical authors understand Scripture? Here, a selective look at Luke’s theology of the word in the Book of Acts[23] will help unpack the major tenets of our evangelical view of Scripture.

Scripture is God’s Word (witness) about Jesus Christ. Luke understands that God’s Word was in the Scriptures that spoke long ago to Israel. Yet, these same Scriptures are still speaking to his generation, that God’s promises to Israel are fulfilled in Christ and his suffering. Luke records Peter’s plea to his fellow Jews, ‘But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God’ (Acts 3:18–19). The reference to ‘all the prophets’ echoes Luke’s earlier account of the Emmaus Road encounter when the resurrected Christ challenges the disciples’ lack of faith, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’ (Luke 24:25). The following narrative is most telling: ‘And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). For Luke, the suffering Christ is the primary subject of Scripture (Acts 2:31; 3:18; 17:3; 18:28; 26:23–24) and this was what God was communicating through Scripture all along.

An evangelical theology of Scripture sees Christ as the central subject of Scripture. The Bible is about, to put it simply, Christ foretold, Christ incarnated, and Christ proclaimed. The many layers of promise and fulfillment between the Old and New Testaments, all of them pointing to Christ, demonstrate the unity of Scripture, which evangelicals insist on. Despite the diversity of authors, genres, and needs, the Scriptures speak with a single, divine voice that bears witness to God’s promise and fulfillment in Christ. Thus, Christ unifies the diversity of Scripture. This was the message Peter preached at Pentecost, and three thousand accepted this ‘word’ and were baptized (Acts 2:41).

Scripture is God’s Word (communication) to us. For Luke, it is God who had foretold of Christ’s suffering through the scriptural prophets (Acts 3:18). He affirms the Scripture principle, that when Scripture speaks, God speaks. And when God speaks in Scripture, it is both by the Holy Spirit, the primary agent of divine communication (Acts 4:25; 28:25), and through humans (eg Moses, prophets, David). Both actively contribute to the communicative event of Scripture. Evangelicals understand that Scripture is ‘breathed out by God’ (2 Tim 3:16), making God, and not human beings, the principal author of Scripture. The Holy Spirit ‘carries along’ (2 Pet 1:21) the human authors of Scripture and enables them to produce God’s intended communication.

An evangelical theology of Scripture begins with the God who communicates through words. Thus, what we believe about God informs what we believe about Scripture. The Lausanne Covenant models this by affirming first, ‘the one eternal God, Creator and Lord of the world, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who governs all things according to the purpose of his will.’[24] And then, the confession about Scripture follows. That God communicates through Scripture means that it is authoritative because its authority is derived from divine authorship. And affirming Scripture’s authority is submitting to God and to Christ’s lordship. For evangelicals, God’s superintending authorship also means that Scripture is the ‘only infallible rule of faith and practice’,[25] meaning that it is true and trustworthy and cannot fail to disclose its salvific purpose since God is true and trustworthy, and his faithfulness cannot be thwarted. This evangelical view reserves complete trustworthiness (infallibility) only for the written Word, and not for the church, its traditions or its leaders, nor for the spiritual experiences and interpretations of Scripture readers. As God’s true word, Scripture is the only dependable guide for faith and living under Christ’s lordship. Many evangelicals would go further to say that Scripture is ‘without error in all that it affirms’,[26] extending trustworthiness to matters beyond its message. While Luke could not have anticipated the many facets and developments of the evangelical view of Scripture, it is his witness to Christ from the Scriptures, in agreement with the other New Testament writings, that lays the foundation for the robust theology of Scripture that evangelicals espouse today.

Scripture is God’s Word (message) of the gospel. For Luke, God in Scripture communicates his promise of salvation through the suffering Christ by the Holy Spirit (a Trinitarian perspective). This is the gospel and the plan of God that Luke bears witness to in the progress of the Word of God in Acts. After Stephen’s death, those scattered by persecution ‘preach the word wherever they went’ (Acts 8:4). Here, the verb ‘preach’ is euaggelizō or to ‘proclaim the good news’ about the Word. Some of those scattered came to Antioch and ‘began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news (euaggelizō) about the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 11:20). Peter calls this proclamation the ‘message (logos) of the gospel’ (Acts 15:7). The growth of the Word of God in Acts is a gospel growth, that is, those who believe in the Word and are saved, and the result is the growth of the church. The gospel of God is the generative power in Scripture that gives birth to the church. And so, Scripture forms the church and causes it to grow. 

An evangelical theology of Scripture understands the gospel as the justification for Scripture. It is the ‘mystery of the gospel’ (Eph 6:19) that God communicates through Scripture, inspired and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, to bear witness to Christ at its center. As Paul would admit, Scripture is all one requires to understand sufficiently and proclaim faithfully this gospel: ‘But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to this own people and to the Gentiles’ (Acts 26:22–23). Evangelicals confess the sufficiency of Scripture to lead people to faith in God, to know the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to live Christ’s lordship faithfully, through the gospel revealed in all of its pages.

Reading Scripture in Context


Any communication, textual or otherwise, is only possible with a proper understanding of the message’s context. The meaning of a text does not inherently belong to a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or even a book, but to these various parts of a text situated in their specific contexts. Hence the dictum, ‘Context is king.’ In terms of biblical interpretation, three types of contexts need to be considered: historical, literary, and canonical contexts. To use the ‘anchor’ analogy, these contexts can be likened to a seabed in which the anchor (the Bible) is firmly fixed. Each part of the Bible must be interpreted in its historical, literary, and canonical contexts. When this principle is forgotten, the anchor is no longer stable, and the ship (the church) is in danger of drifting away.

Historical context

God has revealed himself in Scripture in history. All of the books of the Bible were written in concrete historical circumstances. They were written by real individuals and communities for contemporary audiences.[27] Both the authors and readers of the text took a lot of things for granted of which modern readers are often unaware, and ignorance about such kind of information can lead to misunderstanding the text.

The indispensability of historical context in interpreting biblical messages is attested by Scripture itself. For example, in the episode of Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law in Mark 7, the evangelist Mark inserts a comment on the historical background of the controversy (Mark 7:3–4), without which Mark’s Gentile readers would have had difficulty in understanding why eating without washing hands troubled the Jewish religious leaders.[28] This and other examples indicate that the biblical writers were fully aware of the need to provide adequate background information for some readers from different cultural backgrounds.

However, this kind of explicit reference to the historical context is actually rare in the Bible, because in most cases the author and the readers already shared much of the background information, and they simply assumed it. Thus, it is an important task of modern readers of the Bible to reconstruct the original historical situation which the text itself does not explicitly provide. For example, in order to understand why Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 is against women attending church service without head-covering, the reader needs to know what women’s head-covering (and lack thereof) meant in the first-century Greco-Roman society.

Reconstructing the original historical situation of a biblical text includes identifying the author, original readers, occasion, and purpose of the book. Such reconstruction is done not only using extra-biblical information gleaned from ancient documents, archaeological findings, and other biblical books, but also from the text itself which one is studying. In other words, the text can help reconstruct its historical circumstance, but the latter also illuminates the former. Thus, there is a certain circularity between the text and its context.

Historical context also includes broader cultural backgrounds such as Ancient Near Eastern culture and Hellenistic culture in which the biblical books were written. These include basic worldviews as well as other social and philosophical presuppositions through which biblical authors make various claims. Many of these presuppositions are radically different from those of modern readers, which creates various kinds of interpretive problems. For example, the Hebrew word rāqîaʿ in Genesis 1:6, translated as ‘vault’ (NIV) or ‘firmament’ (KJV, RSV), refers to a solid dome that covered the earth, according to Ancient Near Eastern cosmology.[29] This creates tension with the modern scientific worldview, but the modern reader should resist the temptation to read (and explain) the ancient text in terms of modern science (this is called ‘concordism’). Rather, the interpreter’s task is to uncover the original author’s intended meaning of the text, which is, in this case, expressed through an ancient worldview. 

The fact that God revealed himself through biblical books to specific communities of people living in various historical and cultural backgrounds implies that God communicated through their cultural frameworks to ensure that the divine message for them was fully intelligible to them. This phenomenon is called ‘accommodation.’ The very use of human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek) in the Bible is part of divine accommodation. The eternal Word of God is thus fully embedded in the specific historical contexts to which the biblical authors (and their original readers) belonged.

Modern readers of the Bible, therefore, must always be aware of the gap between the historical contexts of the biblical texts and those of themselves. Some of the biblical messages may not be directly applicable to modern situations.

Literary context

The second type of context in biblical interpretation is literary context. The text of the Bible, like any other text, consists of sentences and words. However, the meaning of specific words in the Bible are not wholly independent, but the precise meaning of a specific word in the Bible can only be determined by other words in the sentence. Hence a warning against the etymological fallacy: the meaning of a certain word in a sentence should be determined by the usage of the word in the present context, not only by the diachronic development of the usage of the word long before the given text was written. Likewise, the precise meaning of a specific sentence can only be determined by other sentences surrounding that sentence. This process can go on further: a verse in a chapter, a chapter in a book, etc. (Even though verse and chapter divisions do not belong to the original text of the Bible, they usually are helpful in dividing the text into meaningful units.)

A corollary of this is that any biblical verse, taken out of context, is liable to misinterpretation. Such misinterpretation, whether intentional or not, could and did have a negative effect on the church’s ministry. In some cases, a wrong message, albeit doctrinally orthodox, is drawn from a text. For example, in Isaiah 43:4 the Lord says, ‘Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.’ While some may think this verse talks about God’s universal love for all humanity, which is certainly true, in its context the verse actually talks about God’s specific love for Israel and his covenant faithfulness to her (see v. 1). In other cases, a heretical doctrine claims to be based on a certain biblical text and purported as sound teaching. This kind of ‘Bible twisting’ has been done by many unorthodox groups that claim to be Christian.

In a broad sense, the literary context includes the concept of genre. A literary genre is a (usually) implicit agreement between the author and the reader as to how the given text should be interpreted. Thus, when reading a piece of poetry like Psalms, the reader should be aware that what is actually written in the text could be metaphoric or hyperbolic, etc., and therefore not to be taken literally. Thus, the reader needs to be aware of the text he or she is reading. Exactly the same sentence, appearing in different genres of books, could mean different things. The three main literary genres contained in the Bible are letters, narrative, and poetry, but there are many other subgenres such as wisdom literature, prophetic literature, and apocalyptic literature.

Normally the broadest literary context for a specific biblical text is the biblical book the given passage belongs to, because that is the entirety of the text the author(s) can control their act of composition, but there are exceptions. For example, the Book of Psalms is a collection of individual psalms, and each psalm is usually treated as an independent literary unit. On the other hand, most contemporary scholars think that the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written as two parts of one long narrative written by the same author. In this case, the entire two-volume work, Luke-Acts, should be considered as the literary context of any passage Luke has written.

In other cases, the line between literary, historical, and canonical contexts (for the latter, see below) is difficult to draw. For example, 2 Corinthians can be interpreted better in light of the other letters written by Paul, and 1 Corinthians is more important in this respect than his other letters. Strictly speaking, however, they do not form a literary context for the epistle, because Paul did not intend to write all of his letters as part of one large literary work.

As in the case of historical context, a biblical text and its literary context have a certain circular relationship. A part is better understood in light of the whole; at the same time, however, our understanding of the whole is formed by our reading of the parts. Our understanding of the former influences that of the latter, and vice versa. So, there is always a dynamic interaction between text and context.

Canonical context

The word ‘canon’ derives from the Greek word kanōn, which came from the Hebrew word qāneh, which refers to a reed or measuring rod. Regarding the Bible, the canon means ‘the standard of faith and practice’ or ‘the list of authoritative writings.’ Thus, the Bible as the canon refers to a fixed collection of authoritative writings as together communicating divine discourse, which functions as the church’s standard of faith and practice.[30]

The canon of the Hebrew Bible consists of 22 books arranged in three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. The first two parts of the OT canon were clearly closed by the first century, and the NT refers to the Jewish Scriptures as ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (Matt. 22:40, etc.). On the other hand, the final part, the Writings, might not have been closed at that time, as the phrase in Luke 24:44 (‘the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’) indicates. Traditionally it was believed that the canon of the Hebrew Bible was finalized at the Council of Jamnia (AD 70–90), but some modern scholars think it was closed in the second century.

The canon of the New Testament consists of 27 books. The list of canonical books was finalized at the Council of Carthage in 419. The driving force behind this long process of the formation of the New Testament canon was the church’s struggle against various heresies. The range of authoritative books for the church was determined so that it was more universal in nature than the ‘canon’ of Marcion, on the one hand, but more restricted than numerous ‘sacred books’ produced by Gnostics and Montanists.

The two contexts discussed above, the historical and the literary contexts, are important not only in biblical interpretation but also in the interpretation of any text, but the canonical context has a unique importance for biblical interpretation. To interpret the Bible in a canonical context means to read it as sacred Scripture for the church, as the Word of God.

In a sense, the canonical context is an extended form of literary context. The concept of canon makes it possible to read the entirety of the Bible as a unified whole and read it from a certain unified perspective. The emphasis is placed on the final shape of the text (synchronic approach), rather than the historical process as to how each biblical book and then the entire canon of the Bible was formed (diachronic approach). Thus, in the canonical context, the reader is able to read one book in light of another book in the canon, even if a direct historical relationship cannot be established.

However, there are some potential problems in reading the Bible in the canonical context. First, there is a diversity within the canon. The concept of canon implies the existence of one mind, namely that of God, behind all the books of the Bible. Thus, a certain level of unity in the messages is presupposed, which makes possible the ‘analogy of Scripture’, the concept that any part of the Bible should be understood in light of other parts of the canon. This does not mean that there is no diversity in the canon. In fact, sometimes there are wide differences between the messages of different passages, books, and authors. For example, James’s claim that faith without deeds is dead (Jas 2:26) is often seen at odds with Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone. Likewise, the retributive wisdom of Proverbs seems to be rejected by the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes.

In the history of interpretation, there have been numerous attempts to explain why these differences are not real contradictions, but a complete harmonization is difficult, and maybe not desirable either. This is especially important today because in the age of postmodernism people are skeptical of any kind of ‘metanarrative’, a comprehensive story that claims to explain everything. The Bible as a canon can be read as an overarching narrative that tells the history of God and his people, but it is not dominated by any single voice. Rather, it is a chorus of multiple voices which nevertheless form a unified story from creation to new creation.

Second, the canonical context can shed new light on a passage that its historical and immediate literary contexts alone cannot provide. For example, there is a level of meaning when Psalm 2 was written by the original author referring to a Davidic king in history. Then there is another level when it was incorporated into the Book of Psalms in which the same text might be read as a reference to the eschatological messiah, and yet another level when a New Testament author quoted it to apply it specifically to Jesus (see, for example, Acts 4:25–28). Finally, there is the canonical level of meaning within the entire Bible.

Related to this, there is a special problem when a New Testament author interprets an Old Testament passage. When only historical context is taken into account, the earlier (OT) text can affect the meaning of the later (NT) text, but not vice versa. Reading the later meaning into the earlier text is considered an anachronistic interpretation, and thus illegitimate. However, such a meaning that the original author of the Old Testament was not aware of (sensus plenior) can be discussed in the canonical context. Thus, an Old Testament text can be read not only in its original historical context but also in the canonical context, which often includes Christological elements which cannot be found or are not central to its original context. This creates a challenge for the church as to how to preach from the Old Testament.

Third, there is the question of the range of the canon. When the Greek-speaking early church inherited the Bible from Judaism, they did so by adopting the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint contains more books than the Hebrew Bible; these are called the Apocrypha. Protestant churches, including evangelicals, deny the canonical status of the Apocrypha, but the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church recognize the canonicity of some of the apocryphal books.


Various types of contexts—historical, literary, and canonical—play a crucial role in evangelical hermeneutics. The basic principle is that the meaning of the text is determined only when it is understood in its proper context, and it requires all three contexts—historical, literary, and canonical—in order to do justice to the text as both human and divine discourse.

There is also another kind of context that affects interpretation: the context of the reader. No reader of the Bible exists outside of a specific historical and cultural context, and such a context inevitably affects the reader’s interpretation. No one can read the Bible from a presupposition-free vantage point, and any reading of it is always from a specific, historically limited perspective. Complete objectivity is impossible, and the first step to biblical interpretation is to realize this fact.[31] The very notion of the canonical context presupposes that the reader is reading as a member of the faith community of orthodox Christianity.

As we have seen, there are various kinds of contexts to consider in biblical interpretation, and there is a certain tension between some of them. Which context should be prioritized is determined by the reader’s situation and purpose (whether reading for academic research or for preparing a sermon, etc.). While it is common to make the distinction between exegesis (what the Bible meant when it was written) and hermeneutics or application (what the Bible means today), these two stages cannot be separated neatly, because the reader’s situatedness inevitably affects his or her quest for the ‘original meaning.’ 

Reading Scripture evangelically

An evangelical hermeneutic depends on three essential principles. First, an evangelical hermeneutic cannot exist without the evangel, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without the gospel, our hermeneutic will no longer be evangelical. Second, for our hermeneutic to be evangelical, we need a correct understanding of the Author of the Bible, God himself, who notably in the person of the Holy Spirit illuminates his Word. Without the Spirit’s intervention in our interpretation of the Bible, our hermeneutic will cease to be evangelical. Third, for our hermeneutic to be evangelical, it must be catholic, tethered to the Scriptures by the tradition God’s people have cultivated through centuries of the Spirit’s guidance. Below, we explore each of these foundations for an evangelical hermeneutic.

Reading evangelically: The gospel

The gospel is the proclamation of the unchanging story that God sent his Son Jesus to live, die, and rise from the dead, according to the Scriptures, and that Jesus ascended to the throne and now reigns as Lord, offering the forgiveness of sins, the gifts of the Spirit, and eternal life to all who repent and believe in him.[32] Each phrase in the previous statement is packed with implications for how a believer should read the Scriptures. First of all, if Jesus now reigns as Lord, the reading of the Scriptures, which are his Word, is a rightful submission to ‘the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile’ (Rom 1:16). Reading in submission to the Christ is imperative for an evangelical hermeneutic. Furthermore, as a proclamation of God’s unchanging story, the gospel serves as our guide in reading God’s revelation. It teaches us the past content of God’s story, its present importance, as well as God’s future goals for humanity. A third and final implication we will explore is that a proper interpretation of God’s Word, seen through gospel lenses, requires belief and repentance. Unless it is lived out, the Bible is not truly read correctly.

The gospel demands submission to Jesus’ authority in the Scriptures

In a pivotal moment in the book of Acts, Peter addresses Cornelius and several Gentiles in his house: ‘you know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). The gospel announces that Jesus is Lord, not only of his disciples, or even of the nation Israel, but ‘Lord of all.’ This is an important and historical confession in the book, which starts in Jerusalem, with the commandment and promise that the disciples would be Jesus’ witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). Jesus’ lordship over the whole world has now changed history, and demands that all, Jew or Gentile, bend the knee.

But what does Jesus’ lordship mean for our interpretation of the Scriptures? It means that he is Lord of our hermeneutics. That is, an evangelical hermeneutic will work under the premise that the eternal God has appointed Jesus as Lord, so that even our interpretative efforts must be done in submission to him. This is because the Bible communicates to us the Word of the eternal God to his created humanity, and in the gospel calls all to submit to the Lord Jesus, ‘who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom 1:4). Any reading of the Bible that denies the authority or power of Jesus as Lord over all cannot be considered an evangelical hermeneutic.

An important consequence of Jesus’ lordship over our hermeneutics is that we do not determine the meaning of the text, but that he does. This is not to deny the participation of the church in constructing an evangelical hermeneutic over space and time (see 3.3), as indeed we have been commanded by God to do so. Nor do we deny that God’s Word is multi-faceted, richer and fuller in meaning than we, as finite creatures, could ever fathom. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that to know his Word truly does not mean to know it exhaustively.

Thus, there is a right and a wrong way to read the Scriptures, and they not only testify to this, but call a curse on those who pervert God’s order: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter’ (Isa 5:20). Yet according to the gospel, ‘whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away’ (2 Cor 3:16; see also 2 Cor 4:4–6). In this way, Jesus our Lord is the one who determines what qualifies as an evangelical hermeneutic.

If we return to Peter’s speech to those in Cornelius’s house, the Holy Spirit visibly manifests God’s acceptance of Gentiles only after they are called to accept Jesus as ‘judge of the living and the dead’ (Acts 10:42), about whom ‘all the prophets testify’ (Acts 10:43). While no one would have argued that these Gentiles understood the Scriptures more extensively than a Jewish scribe or teacher of the law who never knew Jesus, they understood enough of the Scriptures truly, because they accepted, trusted, and submitted to Jesus’ lordship over their lives. The gospel demands submission to Jesus’ authority for a credible evangelical hermeneutic.

The gospel guides the interpretation of God’s Word

Two chapters earlier in Acts, Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch and asked him a very significant question: ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:30). The eunuch answers ‘how can I. . . unless someone explains it to me?’ (Acts 8:31). There are important communal dimensions to his answer, but for now it bears noting that his hermeneutic was insufficient to comprehend the text of Isaiah 53:7–8, quoted in the following verses (Acts 8:32–33).

Several possibilities open up for Philip at this moment. He could have explained Isaiah’s thought process and psychology. He could have delved into the historical and cultural context that gave rise to Isaiah’s prophecy. He could also have helped the Ethiopian eunuch understand what would have most likely been an unfamiliar language to him, whether Hebrew or Greek. And he quite likely did some or all of these things to a certain extent. However, Luke’s summary of Philip’s hermeneutical instruction is telling: ‘Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus’ (Acts 8:35). It is the good news of Jesus that elucidated the text of Isaiah for the eunuch, and imperative that we recognize that the gospel guides the interpretation of God’s Word.

It is not only Philip who explains Scriptures by pointing to the gospel. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, also testifies to the hermeneutical demand that the story of the gospel guide our reading of all other stories in the Scriptures. He demonstrates in his speech that the gospel is the fulfillment of prophecy and expectations of the Old Testament.[33]

Other witnesses in the New Testament also point to the hermeneutical centrality of the gospel. Paul says that his mission is to explain ‘the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people’ (Col 1:26). The ‘now’ he refers to is the time in which ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col 1:27) has come. Similarly, the author of Hebrews states, ‘in the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb 1:1–2). In his first epistle, Peter tells believers that prophets of the OT ‘spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven’ (1 Pet 1:12). The undeniable conclusion is that the gospel is central to any interpretation of the Bible.

A few important implications of the centrality of the gospel can be enumerated:

  • The story of the Bible is summed up in the gospel story. While each author, genre and book speak with a distinct voice, together they form a choir that sings a song culminating in the gospel. In this way, the Bible resists atomization, and an evangelical hermeneutic will look to the gospel as the key to discern the movement of different parts.
  • Jesus is the heart of the Bible. All Scripture, being the Word of God, reveals Jesus as himself the Word of God (John 1:1–5), through whom God speaks (Heb 1:1–2). Exactly how individual texts are grounded in, explained by, or point to Jesus may vary, depending on the text in question, but the centrality of the person of Christ is unquestionable, ‘for no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ’ (2 Cor 1:20).
  • The goal of the Bible for those who believe is eternal life and glory with God as the firstfruits of the renewing of all creation. Since, as defined above, the gospel offers ‘the forgiveness of sins, the gifts of the Spirit, and eternal life to all who repent and believe in him’, all Scripture must in some way point beyond the plight of mankind and the fallen world (since it came from a God who is beyond these things), to the return of Jesus in power and glory to install his new creation.

The gospel transforms those who read the Bible

So far, we have seen that an evangelical hermeneutic must submit to the Lord of the gospel, and that the story of the gospel must govern our reading of the Word of God. However, there is something to be said as well about the people of the gospel, that is, those who have been transformed by the gospel. The gospel is not only information about Jesus, but it is a proclamation that demands a response from its hearers. Without this response, our interpretation will not be evangelical.

If we once again return to Acts 2, we will note that Peter’s audience, after hearing his call to reinterpret the Scriptures according to the gospel of Jesus, answer ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37). They recognize that a correct hermeneutic does not consist of mere intellectual assent, but a life that is transformed by the Word that is heard. ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says’ (Jas 1:22). This truth is ubiquitous in Scripture.[34] A correct and evangelical hermeneutic must be lived out.

Indeed, when Peter answers his audience, calling them to repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38), he does so because, just as the gospel is the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship over our interpretation, so the coming of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus at Pentecost elucidates God’s Word. While we will deal with the importance of the Spirit below (3.2), it is important to emphasize that Pentecost fulfills, at least partially, Jeremiah’s prophecy: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (Jer 31:33; see 2 Cor 3:3; Heb 10:16). The gospel changes something substantive in our interpretation because we ourselves are changed by it, and made able to live out God’s law. While both the new understanding and new living out of God’s Word are not instantly a full comprehension or full holiness (1 John 1:8–10), they are, in Christ, true comprehension and true holiness. The transformation brought by the gospel creates gospel interpreters of the Scriptures, a new creature who is enabled to understand and live out God’s Word, as the firstfruits of the universal new creation awaiting us when Christ returns.

Reading evangelically: The Spirit

‘For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’

Does the Holy Spirit have any role in the faithful/credible evangelical reading of Scripture? Two important documents in the Lausanne Movement provide an affirmative response to this question: ‘the Holy Spirit still speaks today [through the Scripture]’35 and ‘[the Holy Spirit] illumines the minds of God’s people so that the Bible continues to speak God’s truth in fresh ways to people in every culture.’[36] This affirmation derives from the evangelical doctrine of Scripture that views the Bible as the inspired Word of God with an ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice, the Spirit’s pivotal role in its formation, and the church’s perception of it as the canon of Scripture. Scripture, then, as a medium of divine discourse, is a means for the voice of God through which the Spirit speaks now and always.

An unequivocal recognition of the Spirit’s involvement in biblical interpretation is a vital element in faithful evangelical hermeneutics. The affirmation that God stands behind the Scriptures to reveal himself through them and the Holy Spirit was involved in the inspiration, preservation, canon formation, and transmission of the writings naturally leads to the assumption that the Spirit would inherently be involved in Christian interpretation of the Scripture. A more forceful question, therefore, in this conversation has to do with how the Spirit works in a credible evangelical hermeneutic.

A theology of the Spirit’s interpretive role

Theological reflection on the nature of the Bible and the Spirit’s interpretive role involves a genuine conviction that the Scripture is God’s transformative address in the present to the church—the community of citizens of the gospel. This, by default, is perceiving the church as the primary interpretive community of the biblical texts. As a community created and sustained by the gospel of Jesus Christ and the life-giving Spirit of God, the church is the place where the written inspired text and the Spirit’s ongoing presence is visibly manifested by the formation of lives into Christlikeness and growth in Christian commitment. 

One way to think of the Spirit’s involvement in biblical interpretation is taking a closer look at how the Spirit works within the church as the collective body of gospel citizens. The church exists as a community of gospel believers who are called into an eternal intimacy and participation in the life of the Triune God. This communal existence of the church represents a loving invitation of God into divine fellowship in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is an existence that categorically incorporates the person and work of Christ on the one hand and the Holy Spirit on the other. 

Several texts in Scripture affirm that the church is the temple of the Spirit in the same manner as it is the body of Christ.[37] Being the temple of the Spirit, the church stands out as the living community of the Holy Spirit in which his active presence and ongoing work is evident in the world. Since the Spirit is actively engaged in the church’s life and fellowship with Christ, the identity of the Christian community is firmly tied to the Spirit. Simply put, the church can be identified as a ‘people of the Spirit’, that is, a community that declares and displays Christ together under the empowerment and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Through his ongoing presence, the Spirit uniquely guides and empowers this community for Christ-centered life and mission, shaping fellowship with one another, sharpening ethical dimensions, and illuminating minds with insight into God’s will through engagements with the Bible. Two key theological components within evangelical thoughts help us clarify the Spirit’s illuminative role in biblical interpretation: internal testimony of the Spirit and divine illumination. Both of these theological components play pivotal roles in understanding what the Spirit does in evangelical hermeneutics.

Internal testimony of the Spirit

The conviction or confidence that the Spirit provides to believers about the authenticity of the gospel is often explained in terms of the internal testimony of the Spirit. The Spirit’s interpretive role involves the provision of this inner testimony to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Word of God. It is a divine impetus within the believer generated by the Holy Spirit to provide certainty and assurance of Scripture as the reliable Word of God, which demands genuine attention and thorough obedience. Internal testimony is believed to work in tandem with external evidence, such as historical accuracy and fulfilled prophecies, to confirm the reliability of the Bible. An evangelical viewpoint holds that the Holy Spirit witnesses directly to the believer’s heart, affirming the truths of God’s Word and fostering a sense of spiritual certainty. 

Internal testimony is particularly significant in matters of faith that extend beyond empirical evidence by playing a vital role in confirming the belief that Scripture is the Word of God in the same way that it provides internal conviction to the beliefs such as the deity of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, or the promise of eternal life. As the divine agent of sanctification, the Spirit employs internal testimony to cultivate dispositions of the reading community, which enables readers to approach the Bible as a sacred text by attuning their innermost ears to hearing God’s voice through the message it presents. 

This activity of the Spirit involves developing an attitude of openness and invitation so that Christian formation would take place through the practice of active reading, interpretation, meditation, and dialogue as well as sincere commitments to embody the texts individually and collectively in daily lives. It is the Holy Spirit that animates this embodiment by providing the ability to bear fruit that allows the church to participate in a life of devotion and intimacy with God by being involved in ongoing repentance, prayer, worship, and praxis-oriented biblical reading.

Divine illumination

Evangelical thought asserts that Scripture, though written by human authors, carries a divine dimension that requires spiritual insight for proper comprehension. The Spirit provides this spiritual insight, or in a more technical term, ‘divine illumination’, as readers engage with the text. Divine illumination is a theological concept that refers to the idea that the Holy Spirit assists believing readers in understanding the message of the Bible. This understanding is rooted in the belief that fallen human nature may hinder a complete grasp of biblical truths. 

It is a perspective embedded in passages like 1 Corinthians 2:12, where Paul asserts that ‘we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit, which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God’ (RSV). As such, divine illumination is seen as the process by which the Holy Spirit enlightens the minds and hearts of gospel citizens enabling them to grasp and appreciate the meanings and implications of the Scriptures that reveal and testify about Christ and his eternal kingdom. 

The sermon by Peter following the dramatic event in Acts 2 provides a helpful illustration to explain how the Spirit imparts divine illumination. On the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus had an unprecedented ecstatic experience that involved inspired speech of praising God in the languages of people who came ‘from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5), which caused surprise and confusion among these people. Peter’s sermon was a response to this confusion and bewilderment of the bystanders phrased in their muttered question ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12). Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, Peter offered a viable meaning to this Pentecost event by appealing to the prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28–32) that refers to the restoration of Israel, which would rather be fulfilled as a universal promise of salvation. 

Peter’s illuminated interpretation of Joel’s text articulates how God’s agenda to restore his people is inclusive and the fulfillment of his promise to pour out his Spirit on all people is effected through the person and work of Christ. This new understanding of the text weaves together the testimony of Israel’s Scriptures, recent events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and what happened on that very day as the beginning of a new era. Through divine illumination, the Spirit enabled Peter to interpret Joel’s prophecy in a new way but anchored it within the parameters of God’s overall salvation agenda and the biblical testimony to it.

As we have seen above, the Spirit’s interpretive role is tied to the life of the church given that it is the primary interpretive community of Scripture. The theological analysis on identifying the church as the ‘temple of the Spirit’ or as the community of ‘people of the Spirit’ assists our perception of the Spirit’s role in biblical interpretation. More precisely, employing the evangelical thoughts on internal testimony and divine illumination provide pointed reflection on how we maintain an evangelical hermeneutic that involves the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The story in Acts 15 provides a more practical illustration to this notion.

The Spirit’s interpretive role: Lessons from Acts 15

In Acts 15:1–35, Luke documents a crucial moment in the early church’s history when the Spirit’s interpretive role is prominently displayed in the context of the Jerusalem Council. The role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and interpreting critical decisions within the church is one of the key themes that emerge from this passage. The narrative displays how the early church struggles to make the right decision by interpreting the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit in light of what he is doing in their contemporary situation. The passage sheds light on how we can frame an evangelical hermeneutic based on the Spirit’s interpretive role in resolving a theological and practical dilemma within the Christian community. 

The context

Acts 15 unfolds against the backdrop of a growing dispute within the early Christian community. Some Jewish believers were insisting that Gentile converts must be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law to be saved. This controversy threatened to fracture the nascent church, prompting the leaders to convene a council in Jerusalem to address the issue. The Council’s outcome would have profound implications for the future of Christianity. 

The Spirit’s guidance in discerning the problem

The entire development of this narrative models a careful interpretation of Scripture permeated by the Spirit. Luke recounts the confusions and bewilderments and even sharp disputes and disagreements involved as the new community gradually learns to understand its identity as the people of God, which comprises both Jews and Gentiles. As ‘the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter’ (Acts 15:6), we observe an exceptional disposition that attunes to the guidance of the Spirit. It is crucial to note that they convened not merely to debate about the issue, but to ‘consider’ or ‘discern’ the matter. This implies seeking divine guidance and wisdom, and it is a recognition of the Spirit’s role in guiding the church’s decision-making process. 

Testimonies of the Spirit’s work

Peter’s speech in Acts 15:7–11 provides a critical moment in the Council’s deliberations. He recounts his experience with Cornelius, a Gentile centurion who received the Holy Spirit, demonstrating that God accepted Gentiles without requiring them to observe the Mosaic law. The testimonies of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:12) added more confirmation to God’s recurring interventions among the uncircumcised Gentiles. Both accounts were not merely personal anecdotes, but an interpretation of divine intervention, which they attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. 

The council’s decree: Illuminated by the Spirit

James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, played a vital role in offering an interpretive solution to the issue (Acts 15:13–21). In his interpretation of Amos 9:11–12, James emphasized that the inclusion of Gentiles was in accordance with God’s plan. He approaches the text in light of the entire mission of the church guided and empowered by the Spirit. Based on the testimonies of the works of the Spirit as God continues to reveal his salvific purposes within the new community and this Spirit illuminated interpretation of the text, the Council finally claimed, ‘for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28) and concluded with a practical resolution that aligns with the Spirit’s revelation. 


Our theological analysis and the passage from Acts underscore the ongoing relevance of the Holy Spirit’s interpretive role in the life of the church and how this is understood in light of the overall activities of the Spirit within the church. The Spirit continues to guide and empower the church in matters of life, faith, doctrine, and mission. How the Spirit works in a faithful evangelical hermeneutic is securely tied with the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in the life and experience of evangelical churches. 

Reading evangelically: The role of tradition


What is tradition doing in a document setting forth a credible evangelical hermeneutic? This question becomes acute in light of The Cape Town Commitment affirmation that God’s Word in the Scriptures is ‘not surpassed by any further revelation.’ and that we ‘must find fresh ways to articulate biblical authority in all cultures.’[38] Evangelicals are a people of the book, alert to local contexts: What, then, is the role of past human traditions and formulations? And how can we avoid the danger of giving too much weight to past formulations, turning them into stale monuments to the dead rather than dynamic guides for the living?

A credible evangelical hermeneutic must admit that we are neither the first nor the only people to read the Bible as the Word of God. The church is one, yet many. The sheer number of interpretive traditions—a situation that some have termed ‘pervasive interpretive plurality’—obliges us to locate our reading of the Bible on the spectrum of Christian approaches. Tradition plays a key role in explaining how evangelical Bible reading relates to other types. 

A closer look at Scripture suggests that tradition has an important role to play in evangelical hermeneutics as a form of the Spirit’s ministry of the gospel. Viewed theologically, tradition—the process of handing on insights into biblical interpretation from one generation to another—can be a means by which the Spirit ministers the Word.

What tradition is and does

Christian tradition is a socially embodied, historically extended way of interpreting God’s Word written (the Bible), way of following God’s living Word (Jesus Christ). Tradition is inevitable: it is one thing to have a high view of Scripture, another to know how to understand and respond to it rightly. 

Final say-so as to what the Bible means must lie with the risen Christ, the one who explained all the Scriptures to his disciples (Luke 24:27) and the one to whom all authority has been given (Matt 28:18). Christ nevertheless delegates his authority to others, commissioning the apostles to speak and act in his name, and giving them the Holy Spirit to do so boldly, and with power (Acts 1:8).

One of these commissioned witnesses, Philip, personifies evangelical tradition at its best. Philip is an evangelical ‘tradent’: a conduit of tradition; one who ‘passes on’ the good news of the gospel in the power of the Spirit. Both the act and the Word for ‘passing on’ (Gk. paradosis) are biblical. Christ typically uses the term ‘tradition’ negatively, to indicate mere man-made inventions. For example, he chides the Pharisees and scribes, saying ‘You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men’ (Mark 7:8). The apostles use the same term positively, but they mean something else. For example, Paul encourages the Thessalonians to ‘stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us’ (2 Thess 2:15).

Readers often need help to make sense of the Bible, as did the Ethiopian eunuch to whom Philip posed the question that serves as the title of the present paper: ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ (Acts 8:30). The Ethiopian’s response is also telling: ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ (Acts 8:31). The passage is noteworthy because it is the Spirit who prompts Philip to approach the Ethiopian’s chariot and because what Philip helps him understand is the gospel: ‘and beginning with this Scripture [Isaiah 53:7–8] he told him the good news about Jesus’ (Acts 8:35). The biblical message as apostolic tradition is authoritative, and Philip’s explanation as post-apostolic tradition is its servant.

In addition to passing on and receiving the ‘good deposit’ (2 Tim 1:14), the gospel, early Christians also had to work out its implications. To follow Jesus, they had to understand what follows from his death, resurrection, and ascension. This is precisely what the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was all about: figuring out whether Gentiles had to become like Jews, circumcised, in order to be saved. After hearing from Peter, Barnabas, and James, and much prayer, the gathering of apostles and elders agreed that the gospel meant not requiring anything else of Gentiles for their salvation than faith in Christ. The Jerusalem Council marks the beginning of an interpretive tradition and, as such, is a good example of the Spirit leading the church deeper into the truth of the gospel: ‘For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28). 

Tradition is ‘apostolic’ when it is in harmony with the commissioned witness of the apostles who first proclaimed the gospel, then agreed on its implications at the Jerusalem Council, and eventually produced the New Testament Scriptures. Tradition is apostolic and evangelical when it is the result of the Spirit leading the whole church into the whole truth of the whole Bible. 

Decision-making about what truths and practices follow from the gospel is inevitable. In order to avoid wrong deductions and, in particular, heresies—readings of the Bible that distort or contradict the truth of the gospel—the early church had recourse to the Rule of Faith. The Rule was not additional revelation but a kind of executive summary of the story of Scripture, a reminder as to what the whole of the Bible is about. Like Philip, the Rule of Faith provides a guide for biblical interpretation or, as Irenaeus says, a ‘key’ for putting together the puzzle pieces of Scripture so that they form a picture of Christ the King.

Evangelical tradition refers to the Spirit-led process of handing on, from one generation to the next, both the primary apostolic tradition (the proclamation of Christ’s saving death and resurrection) and the results of church councils which, together with the Rule of Faith, help us understand what we are reading: what the good news is, what it means, and how the church ought to live out its implications. An interpretive tradition is a way of following the biblical words where the Spirit leads.

Tradition and evangelical hermeneutics

Church history is to a great extent the history of biblical interpretation. Christians in different locations and times followed the Word in different directions, often faithfully, sometimes unfaithfully. The Protestant Reformation was a call to return to faithful following, of attending only to Scripture rather than human inventions (the negative sense of ‘traditions’). Yet Protestants have their own interpretive traditions too, their own ways of reading key biblical passages like ‘This is my body’ (Luke 22:19).

Interpretive differences between Bible-believing Christians raise at least two questions that any evangelical hermeneutic must confront in order to be credible in our present pluralistic situation: (1) Is tradition compatible with the supreme authority of Scripture, which is to say, with the Reformation principle of sola scriptura? (2) If it is true that all Bible reading is tradition-bound, and that interpretive traditions are fallible, how can members of a given interpretive community have confidence that their readings are legitimate? Are there any objective criteria that can help us to decide whether or not an interpretive tradition is as true and trustworthy as the Scriptures themselves? 

First, then, sola scriptura. There is a right and a wrong way to understand the principle ‘Scripture alone.’ The Reformers never meant that we should read the Bible without any Greek grammars, commentaries, or Philips to help us understand. We should not confuse sola with ‘solo’ scriptura. Sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is the only final, infallible, and supreme authority, not the one and only authority. Philip and the other apostles are delegated authorities. The Jerusalem Council’s judgment was a secondary authority.

The kind of tradition we see at work in the New Testament is part of a pattern of authority, which begins with the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures through the apostles. Along the way, however, we also find Philip, the Jerusalem Council, the Council of Nicaea, and other means the Spirit uses to lead the whole church into the whole truth. Elements of tradition, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, have ministerial, not magisterial, authority. A ministerial authority is a servant authority: its say-so depends entirely on according with its master. An interpretive tradition has authority only insofar as it is faithful to the apostolic tradition fixed in Scripture. What some call the ‘Great Tradition’ is simply the consensus of the communion of saints across the centuries about what follows from the apostolic teaching. The Great Tradition is only the moon to Scripture’s sun: what light, and authority, tradition has is but a reflection of its sun.

What might be the contribution of tradition in addressing our second question, concerning the plurality of biblical interpretations and the criteria for discerning readings that conform to rather than distort the biblical text? The Willowbank Report rightly reminds us that we can neither approach the Bible as it were written in our own day nor focus on the original historical context such that it has nothing to say to the contemporary reader. Instead, we must develop a dialogue between past and present contexts.[39] This dialogue, we suggest, is tradition: the ongoing discussion in a particular interpretive community about the meaning and implications of the gospel for the church in a particular time and place. 

In addition to the original (historical) and literary (canonical) contexts of the Bible, biblical interpreters today must acknowledge the role of their present (cultural) context, and that of earlier generations of Christians—call it the ‘catholic’ (ie whole church) context. As the Willowbank Report says, the task of understanding Scripture belongs not just to individuals, or to particular churches and denominations, but to the universal church.[40] Churches today should view the historic tradition not as a foreign authority imposed upon them, but as a familial conversation into which they are invited to take part. Our elders are not infallible, but they nevertheless deserve respect, and are often a source of wise guidance. While the original historical and present cultural contexts remain important, churches today should also attend to the context of the communion of saints, extended over time and through space.

In a pluralistic age where biblical interpreters risk being tossed to and fro by cultural waves and carried about by winds of false teaching, tradition can be a precious anchor. To be sure, the true anchor is the ever reliable Word of God, ‘a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’ (Heb 6:19). Tradition can nevertheless help biblical interpreters avoid making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim 1:19). What connects a community of biblical interpreters to the anchor of Scripture is the chain of tradition. The length of the chain allows for some movement on the surface of the water, and thus flexibility, but prevents dangerous drift. 

Awareness of what the whole church over its whole history has affirmed provides precious guidance for churches sailing in new cultural waters. A credible and faithful evangelical hermeneutic will therefore pay attention to the original historical, literary, canonical, and contemporary cultural, and catholic contexts. Tradition, at its best, is the chain that connects the local church to the whole church, the glue that connects cultural diversity to catholic unity. The Spirit uses tradition to anchor diverse contextual interpretations to the ‘one faith’ and the ‘once-for-all’ gospel. The Great Tradition is an anchor, not a millstone hung around the neck. Contextual theologies without catholic tradition are free-floating; catholic tradition without contextual theology is but a dead weight.

Conclusion: Towards an evangelical reading culture 

Tradition does not add to what the Spirit has written but, like Philip, guides readers in understanding its meaning and implications. Tradition cultivates particular reading practices, such as reading the Old and New Testaments as unified testimonies to God’s plan of salvation fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Knowledge of this consensus interpretive tradition passed on through the centuries helps biblical interpreters today read in historical fellowship and catholic context. 

The local church is both an expression of the whole church in a particular place and a contextual expression of the Great Tradition in a particular time. As such, the local church is a reading culture that passes on to the next generation what it has received from the communion of saints, namely, a way to display Christ’s reign in ten thousand local places. 

Developing an Evangelical Reading Culture

Diversity in unity and fostering local Bible reading in context

Diversity in unity

The interpretation of Genesis 50:20 for most Christians is the triumph of providence in safely keeping his chosen people from famine and preparing them for significant future events in Egypt. However, this lesson may resonate differently with our African brothers, as they find the theme of reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers to be more prominent. In many contexts, Christians may overlook the famine’s significance in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:14) compared to believers in the Majority World who lack daily bread. In places where power encounters are common, the story of the Gadarene in Mark 5:1–20 is not only seen as a historical event of Jesus’ ministry on earth, but also as a continuation of his work. Alternatively, some interpret this gospel story from a soteriological perspective, placing more value on a single soul than on two thousand pigs. These diverse interpretations raise a crucial question of unity: Is there a singular meaning of the text amidst multiple views and experiences?

Ethno-hermeneutical unity and diversity

The Willowbank Report has already pointed out the importance of cultural contexts in interpretation and at the same time, emphasized the necessity of studying the original context and language of the Scriptures.[41] The anchor of exegesis should be present in any faithful interpretation so the reader will not drift away in the ocean of relativity and subjectivism. In the bedrock of unity is the authorial intention, genre, original historical and cultural context. The diversity is found in the context of the contemporary reader who seeks what it means for his devotional benefit and of his community. And so Grant Osborne writes, ‘The sacred author’s intended meaning is the critical starting point but not an end in itself. The task of hermeneutics must begin with exegesis but is not complete until one notes the contextualization of that meaning for today.’[42]

Ethno-hermeneutics is the contextual hermeneutics of what the Scriptures meant and what it means to a community today, or in other words, exegesis and contextualization (or application). Affirming this unity and diversity should not be taken as an artificial tension but as a way grounded in the character of our Triune God, who is one and three. Again, the Willowbank Report suggests:

It is the need for this dynamic interplay between text and interpreters which we wish to emphasize. Today’s readers cannot come to the text in a personal vacuum, and should not try to. Instead, they should come with an awareness of concerns stemming from their cultural background, personal situation, and responsibility to others. These concerns will influence the questions which are put to the Scriptures.[43]

The false dichotomy of Western and non-Western

The well-known call for the moratorium on Western missionaries (WCC–1972)44 aiming to liberate the Majority World from its cultural captivity has also led to a growing concern regarding Western hermeneutical methods. This was one of the most debated issues in Lausanne 74. Some critics argue that these methods, tainted by secularism and rationalism, may not adequately address the complexities of contexts where supernatural and demonic beliefs hold significant sway. Consequently, there has been a noticeable shift towards prioritizing the local cultural contexts in interpretation, seen as a more appropriate approach. Those who question contextual interpretations are often viewed as potentially interfering in an imperialistic manner.

In biblical interpretation, the term ‘contextualization’ plays a crucial role in understanding the Scriptures. The ongoing discourse surrounding this concept often revolves around the tension between prioritizing the local context over the authorial intention. On one hand, emphasizing the local context allows for a deeper grasp of the historical, cultural, and linguistic nuances within biblical texts, shedding light on the original audience’s understanding. On the other hand, acknowledging the authorial intention acknowledges the divine inspiration and purpose behind the Scriptures. Striking a balance between these two perspectives proves to be the ideal approach. However, the Theological Education Fund (WCC–1972) first coined the term ‘contextualization’[45] and even in many evangelical circles the usage has been to affirm the contemporary context determining the meaning. The ecumenical critical view of the Scriptures that prompts this tendency is not what characterizes evangelicals in the West. We need to make a clear distinction between the ecumenical concept of contextualization from the evangelical usage.

The increasing prevalence of social science in missiological studies has, at times, adversely impacted models of biblical interpretation. While the incorporation of social scientific methods has brought valuable insights into understanding cultural contexts and human behavior, it has occasionally led to a shift away from traditional hermeneutical principles rooted in the careful study of biblical texts. Some scholars have prioritized sociological and anthropological frameworks over the historical and theological dimensions of biblical interpretation, embracing polysemy and social convention, where the understanding of meaning transcends individual words and becomes a product of collective assignment within society.[46] As a result, some forms of paraphrase and contextual interpretations risk losing the rich depth and spiritual truths embedded within the biblical narrative, and overlooking the transformative power of Scripture for individual lives and communities of faith. While this approach may enhance cross-cultural communication, it raises concerns about potential distortions or dilutions of the original message. Moreover, the increasing influence of social science in missiology has not yielded a uniform Western evangelical perspective. Different scholars and practitioners may hold varying views on the appropriate balance between social scientific insights and traditional hermeneutics, leading to a diverse array of interpretative models within the field of missiology.

Hermeneutics can be challenging as it involves navigating the complexities of our presuppositions, ideologies, and personal experiences. These factors can exert a powerful influence on our understanding of the Bible, potentially shaping and imposing our own cultural lenses onto the eternal Word of God.47 It is crucial to recognize the ever-present risk of domesticating the divine message by filtering it through the biases and limitations of our cultural context. When discussing contextual hermeneutics, it is essential to avoid oversimplification using the dichotomy of Western versus non-Western perspectives. While specific hermeneutical approaches may have originated in Western contexts, they are not exclusive to the West.

Fostering local Bible reading in context

Cultural blind spots

The Willowbank Report states that ‘none of our culture is perfect in truth, beauty or goodness. At the heart of every culture—whether we identify this heart as religion or world-view—is an element of self-centeredness, of man’s worship of himself.’[48] Similarly, John Mbiti writes:

With the tools of our cultures we are both defenders and traitors of Christianity, and this is a paradox which belongs to the whole relationship between Christianity and cultures. We live between the polarities of Christian ethics and cultural boundaries. Yet, the process of transformation means, ultimately, that we become more and more Christian and less and less African (or Japanese, American or Swiss). The only identity that counts and has full meaning is identity with Christ and not with any given cultures. . . . Paradoxically culture snatches us away from Christ, it denies that we are His; yet when it is best understood, at its meeting with Christianity, culture drives us to Christ and surrenders us to Him, affirming us to be permanently, totally and unconditionally His own.[49]

In order to successfully navigate the intricate terrain of hermeneutics, the global church must conscientiously acknowledge its inherent cultural biases. It is imperative that the church strives to approach the Scriptures with a disposition of humility and open-mindedness. ‘As we address Scripture, Scripture addresses us. We find that our culturally conditioned presuppositions are being challenged and our questions corrected. In fact, we are compelled to reformulate our previous questions and to ask fresh ones. So the living interaction proceeds.’[50] Beneath the surface of each culture lies a complex framework of beliefs, emotions, and values, collectively shaping the perceptual construct referred to as a worldview. While culture forms the visible expression, worldview serves as its underlying foundation. It is essential to recognize that worldview is not devoid of inherent leanings, as it encompasses a collection of presuppositions that inevitably influence the interpretation of biblical teaching.

Given the fallen human proclivity for partiality and predisposition, the assertion of possessing an entirely unadulterated biblical worldview remains untenable. However, this should not dissuade earnest efforts. The solution lies in embracing a posture of receptivity to the wisdom embedded within the faith community—the church. It is through active listening and engagement with the collective insights of the faithful that a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding can be cultivated. Stephen Pardue contends, ‘Evangelical contextual theologies must look to Scripture as their magisterial authority, even as they increase their appreciation for the crucial ministerial role of culture for the theological task.’[51]

Global reading of the Bible

We acknowledge the need for the global collaboration of all members of Christ’s body. The hermeneutical insights of different members of the global church can provide the illumination needed to form a faithful evangelical reading culture with its set of beliefs, values, and practices.52 Engaging in cross-cultural dialogue and learning from diverse perspectives can enrich our understanding of the biblical text. Embracing a spirit of cultural humility can help us embrace the depth and richness of the eternal Word of God in all its contexts, transcending the boundaries of culture and fostering a deeper unity in the body of Christ. 

Christ speaks to the global church through the medium of his revealed Word, as it is imperative that every facet of Scripture, encompassing the Law, Prophets, and Psalms, converges to illuminate his supremacy. Despite their distortions due to sin, our cultural identity and language remain a blessed gift from God. Different parts of the body of Christ, each characterized by its unique attributes, can offer contributions within the framework of his providential arrangement. Our Asian brethren possess valuable insights to impart regarding the honor and shame dimensions of the gospel. Similarly, our African counterparts can illuminate the fear and power facets inherent in it. Indian Christians hold the potential to provide more understanding regarding the concepts of uncleanness and purity in the Christian journey. Furthermore, our Middle Eastern brethren can guide us in cultivating a profound appreciation for the significance of hospitality.

Scripture reading culture in contexts of diversity

Current challenges in the field of evangelical hermeneutics revolve around the growing issue of biblical illiteracy and the diversity of interpretations. In response to these challenges, this section proposes a collaborative approach to the reading of Scripture, emphasizing the importance of theological robustness and fidelity in the hermeneutical process. Our vision is that this collaborating reading is grounded in Christ, anchored in the gospel, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and fostered in the life and mission of the church. The Book of Acts serves as a compelling example of the church’s pivotal role in addressing unity amid the diversity of Scripture reading and interpretation. Given the increasing diversity in the life and mission of the global church, we embrace the Pauline admonition to ‘correctly handle the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15) as an essential calling for the church. 

Diversity, the many-colored wisdom of God: Right from creation, the concept of ‘diversity’ is embedded and celebrated in God’s Word. Numerous instances throughout Scripture prompt us to contemplate the rich tapestry of diversity that characterizes the hermeneutical task.[53] The Lausanne Covenant not only affirms the unchangeable nature of God’s revelation in Christ and Scripture, but also highlights that God ‘illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.’[54] Phrases like ‘God’s people in every culture’ and ‘the many-colored wisdom of God’ vividly depict the beauty of diversity in culture, reading and interpretation. Beyond cultural plausibility, the ecclesia is called to faithfully interpret the Scripture in its whole message, as it has been revealed by the Triune God, entrusted to the entire people of God, to be proclaimed to the whole world. The evangelical community places a strong emphasis on local churches, often representing diverse cultures themselves, as the central hubs for collaborative Scripture engagement and interpretation. In order to engage with today’s reasoning and individualistic perspectives, the church must address issues related to diversity in biblical interpretation and application. Forming a Scripture reading culture can serve as an effective pathway forward. 

A collaborative Scripture reading culture: In parallel with the contemporary social landscape where reading and comprehension are on a steady decline, biblical literacy is also diminishing.[55] One of the contributing factors may be the challenge of nurturing a local reading culture, which plays a crucial role in shaping believers’ understanding of their roles as disciples, servants, and citizens of God’s kingdom. This concept of a ‘Scripture reading culture’ goes beyond the conventional gatherings that focus on reading and listening to implying the reading’s catalytic impact whereby the community is built in a formative and transformative practice of reading, following, applying, and sharing the Word of God. Collaborative reading unites individuals or groups from various walks of life, allowing them to be deeply influenced by the Word of God in their daily lives. People from diverse backgrounds, who may have little in common, unite for the noble purpose of reading the Scriptures and in the process, become a spiritual and missional community that continues to grow. Catalytic collaborations in Scripture reading can propel the church to reach out to the least-reached corners of the world. We need individuals akin to Philip in Acts 8:30 who walked alongside a stranger and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ or those resembling the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:16–34 who engaged in interpreting God’s Word and his purposes in a pluralistic community. Such endeavors require humility, a willingness to have one’s own interpretations challenged, and a missional vision to reach out to the least-reached. The human self, with its inherent fragility and deep insecurities, constantly seeks meaning and relevance. The ecclesia, the community of the called out, is made of such individuals. The growing inclination towards private spirituality serves as a reminder of God’s call to establish a visible body that assembles around his Word. In collaborative reading, God’s people hold rugged individual preferences in check and learn to temper their limited understandings, and ensure they align with the test of God’s Word, following His guidance.

In any context, collaborative reading may carry the risk of reader-centered interpretation and relativism if hermeneutical principles are misapplied. The challenge posed by postmodern readers lies in their skepticism regarding a text’s universal meaning or any claim of authority made by the text. Vanhoozer aptly observes, ‘In our disenchanted, disbelieving age, many no longer believe that there is a ‘meaning’ in texts. Interpretation is more like a power struggle in which the reader imposes or forces his or her will on the text: This is what it means to me.’[56] The rejection of absolute claims in the postmodern context, too, necessitates collaborative reading and reflection. Additionally, there is a growing recognition of the adverse consequences of biblical illiteracy on the well-being and growth of the church. In South Asia, collaborative Scripture reading communities are emerging, not only in traditional church settings but also in grassroots fellowships, house churches, and professional environments. These communities come in various forms, including multi-faith, intergenerational, online, interdenominational, and more. 

Two instances of collaborative Scripture reading: Within the confines of a metropolitan college campus in South India, a space traditionally reserved for faith-neutral dialogues took an intriguing turn when a young tech professional introduced a ‘living room Scripture reading community.’ This community embarked on a journey to read and interpret Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. During these readings, a Dalit (lower caste) student resonated strongly with the themes of non-violence, non-retaliation present in the text. In contrast, an anti-Christian student staunchly refused to accept the sermon as ‘God’s Word’, finding it nearly impractical and unreasonable. Meanwhile, a devout Hindu, who firmly believed in the concept of human re-birth, claimed that he was already implementing these principles in his life, suggesting that they were not uniquely Christian. In a nation boasting a population of 1.48 billion, even a small group can manifest remarkable diversity in their religious and moral beliefs, shaped by the complex fabrics of their daily realities. These realities encompass issues such as poverty, polytheism, superstition, oppression, corruption, caste discrimination, and many more. The process of hermeneutics in this generation is undeniably complex and challenging. It necessitates the empowerment of the Spirit and a spirit of humility to navigate the intricate tapestry of faith and cultural diversity that defines this dynamic landscape. 

The intergenerational Scripture reading community in Nepal is a recent initiative aimed at strengthening local churches through regional learning hubs. This innovative approach encourages collaborative reading of Scripture within families, villages, and churches. It serves as a contextual platform that has proven to bridge generational gaps, fostering dialogue and understanding among those who may often resist such interactions. Furthermore, this initiative is raising awareness among believers about the importance of safeguarding their faith from heresies, syncretism, and individualistic interpretations of God’s Word. Significantly, these gatherings take place in open spaces, allowing individuals outside the church to also listen and learn. Women play an important role in sharing God’s story and leading people to Christ. Nepal, once the only Hindu nation in the world until 2008, has witnessed a rapid spread of Christianity in recent years, with Christians now constituting 1.4 percent of the population. While the early enthusiasm of first and second-generation believers in church planting and fellowship was remarkable, it appears to be waning among younger generations, who are becoming less engaged with the Scriptures. Additionally, various cults within the country continually create distinctive and often eccentric doctrines based on isolated verses, leading to confusion, and diverting people from their faith. Although the collaborative reading culture is a promising solution for these challenges, questions regarding theological soundness and fidelity remain. This underscores the need to address the gap between exegetical and theological understanding in hermeneutics.

The necessity of theological depth and fidelity: Theology serves as the foundation for hermeneutics, as a theologian’s primary responsibility is essentially interpretative. As Bernard Ramm emphasized, ‘The doctrinal interpretation of the Bible is the work of the theologian. It is advancing beyond the grammatical and the historical sense to the fuller meaning of Scripture.’[57] He also underscored that ‘Exegesis is prior to any system of theology.’[58] Hermeneutical practice, in its entirety, comprises both exegetical and theological aspects for completeness. However, a concerning divergence often arises between the formative and communal reading of the Bible at the grassroots level and the more philosophical and academic readings. It becomes perilous when isolated ‘parts’ of the message are separated from the ‘whole’, leading to a proliferation of heresies and cults in the name of valuing diversity in individual interpretations. This underscores the importance of a reliable hermeneutic approach to Scripture that respects diversity while steadfastly safeguarding the theological core of evangelical beliefs. While academic orientations often tend towards a critical and philosophical approach, the lived experiences of the Majority World church—marked by illiteracy, poverty, persecution, and calamities—encourage more affective and communal readings. It is not a matter of labelling Majority World readings as better or worse, but rather acknowledging their distinctiveness. The challenge we face is not Bible vs non-Bible, rather the multiple types of interpretation that traditional credal and confessional bases can serve as anchors to keep the hermeneutical task from drifting from the core. A reading culture permeates cross-sectional spaces in communities, socializes believers into a set of beliefs, values and practices of biblical interpretation, and transcends regional and denominational diversities.

The critical balance: Being faithful to the context is a vital hermeneutical mandate in forming reading cultures, where we affirm that the Scripture itself is the primary source of information for its faithful hermeneutic. However, we recognize there are hermeneutical limitations across cultures as Hall articulates, ‘Sin’s distorting effect skews the vision of all cultures. All human beings view the Bible through cracked, blurred lenses that blind us to biblical meanings, challenges, and beauty that God longs for us to understand and embrace.’[59] By the revelation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, its readers mature by bringing the plumb line of truth against their cultural preconceptions and erroneous ways of life. Therefore, the critical balance to foster in forming reading cultures is between faithfully conforming to the biblical text and seeking authenticity about the praxis of faith where the church functioned in the past and lives in the present. Credal foundations and ecclesial traditions and confessions are helpful chains that anchors us solidly on the Scripture to safeguard us from drifting from the evangelical core. God’s truth revealed in the Scripture is relevant to all contexts and a well-forming reading culture can transcend human diversities without contradicting the core. Reading communities, by affirming the power of the gospel unto salvation, facilitates the formation of persons in dynamic relationships of restoration and reconciliation, irrespective of who they are or what worldviews they hold. This faithful bridging of the historical-exegetical message with doctrinal-practical relevance in context requires skill, integrity, and humility, and this happens by the illumination of the Holy Spirit in reading communities. For the church to flourish in the coming decades, we must form ourselves into faithful Scripture reading communities that faithfully declare and display the Lordship of Christ. In fact, church must embody this reading culture.

In conclusion, we acknowledge the significant impact of the neglect of Bible reading within Christian households and congregations. This neglect has adverse consequences on the establishment of strong faith foundations in successive generations, leading to a loss of valuable human resources for God’s work within the church today. It is crucial that we take proactive steps to address this issue. The time has come to establish collaborative Bible reading communities that encompass individuals from various generations and walks of life. Through these communities, we can encourage a deep exploration of God’s Word and the faithful fulfilment of his will. The gospel serves as the powerful means through which God brings salvation and fosters dynamic relationships of restoration and reconciliation. Therefore, it is our solemn responsibility to convey this message to every human being, regardless of the diversity that may exist among us. We emphasize that the interpretation of Scripture demands faith, skill, integrity, humility, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. A faithful evangelical hermeneutic, which holds divine authority, canonical mandate, and contextual sensitivity in balance must underpin the collaborative culture of reading and understanding God’s Word. Such an approach has the potential to transform families, societies, and churches, ultimately making a significant impact on the ongoing story and history of salvation.

Reading the Scriptures in a highly volatile context

Reading the Bible as Palestinian Christians

Christians from diverse cultural, religious, and political contexts have been reading the Scriptures for the last two thousand years. In the Middle East in particular, as readers seek to encounter the text anew from the perspective of the twenty-first century, how can we challenge the claim that Christ belongs to a particular denomination, nation, or race? The Scriptures are God’s revelation to his people, his Word in written form. As we eagerly seek to understand and respond to his message, we must keep in mind that hermeneutics is not an end in itself. We must also confess that our backgrounds impact our thinking when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and that our presuppositions influence our evaluation. This is humility. Hence, we cannot overlook that our hermeneutical lens is shaped by our social, political, cultural, and religious reality. In doing so, we confess that our interpretation is not merely subjective but rather should be subject to scrutiny, criticism, and dialogue with the global church and the community of scholars. In realizing our limitations, we are reminded that it is the virtues of the kingdom that we are promoting from love, humility, justice, and righteousness.

This section, from a Middle East perspective, provides an initial presentation on reading and interpreting the Scriptures in highly volatile contexts, with particular reference to Palestinian Christians. The existence of the state of Israel has created religious and theological questions for Palestinian Christians, but also for all believers seeking truth and justice. How do Palestinian Christians read the Old Testament today? What about concepts like Israel, Zion, and Jacob are still part of the liturgical heritage? Can they be viewed as unbiased spiritual and divine terms? Our evangelical confession esteems divine inspiration and accepts the Scriptures in its two Testaments. Further, through the Bible we encounter God and understand his will for humanity. Thus, this section envisions a robust reading of the Scriptures and calls for theological fidelity in the hermeneutical task.

Developing a reading culture characterized by love

As we read the Scriptures, how can we demonstrate that the Word of God helps us establish an identity for the people of God, defined not by race or nationality but by suffering and love? As we consider this perspective, the results can help us not only to relate to matters of identity, salvation, justice, and peace but also to developing a Scripture reading culture for God’s people. As Palestinian Christians, we are challengingly well situated to inspire others on how to love God and love others. Yet, reading the Scriptures through our eyes is not tantamount to postmodernism, nor does it invite pluralism. Rather, when our reading is humble and reasonable, it will enrich the whole church as a distinct testimony and not lose its salt and light quality. Developing a reading culture characterized by love results from a decision to honor Jesus Christ. Love is not an excuse to abandon justice, but rather an opportunity to pursue justice in the right way. Biblical love is covenantal love, which is rooted in Jesus Christ and in turn spreads the kingdom of God. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ rooted in covenantal love is at the core of our identity. With this identity is precisely how we should desire to read Scripture. Reading the Bible should not be for the sake of argument, but to honor Jesus and bless others around us, especially when living in a highly volatile context where it is particularly important to understand what Scripture teaches. By developing a reading culture characterized by love, we are in a better position to understand God’s plan for us and to reflect our identity as the people of God.

More than a particular worldview

Although there are existential questions from our context, developing a reading culture should not mean that we are advocating a particular worldview. Palestinian Christians have grappled with the question of how fluidity in Scripture impacts the understanding of the theology of the land. For example, the question of the different borders of the land in the Old Testament and how these are applied in modern day Israel/Palestine. In faithfully reading such texts, we must raise the questions and allow our brothers and sisters to answer these questions from their own tradition. Such Scripture reading reflects a healthy dialogue where we can move forward to understand the Word of God together within our reading culture.

Further questions for reading Scripture together in our context:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to be Arab?
  • Is there one understanding of being Jewish? Is there one understanding of being Arab?
  • How does the Jewishness of Jesus embody the hope of the Old Testament in the best way?
  • What does it mean that Jesus’ Jewishness was sinless, inclusive, and not a threat to those who are not Jews?
  • What does it mean that the land is received within the covenantal relationship with God?
  • How can we not make our geography biased for a particular meaning and connection?
  • How can we understand geography and history, not only in terms of position or rendering it biased for a particular meaning and connection?
  • How should we pay careful attention so that we do not allow our understanding to distort the divine design?

As we answer these questions, we must keep in mind the following:

  • The land is God’s. (Ps 24:1; Gen 1:18; 2:15; Lev 25:23)
  • The land requires holiness. (Lev 18:24–28; Jer 2:7; 16:18)
  • Inhabiting the land is linked to obedience. (Gen 12:1–3; 22:16–18)

How does a reading culture help us understand the principle that obedience and living according to God’s laws precede the claim to land inheritance? If the land is an inheritance from the Lord, then certainly it must be lived in in a manner that honors his name, teaches his presence, and reflects his creation.

Reading to draw closer to Christ by the Spirit

Developing a reading culture should lead us steadily to Christ. We ought to keep in mind the alternative reading of these texts and discover God through dialoguing with the different sections of Scripture. The text does not always move chronologically but at times, it seeks to highlight a thematic connection. For example, God’s original plan is not to have a divided land. It was because of sin that the land was divided. Our theology should be Christ-centered and should honor Jesus in the Middle East. If we allow the power of Christ’s love to liberate us, we can shine and have greater impact.

A faithful reading of the Scriptures takes into consideration a holistic biblical theology. For example, true worship according to John 4 is no longer associated with a physical location (John 4:22–24). Our understanding of the concept of the holy space and promises of God concerning the land ought to take into consideration the centrality of Christ. Both Jews and Palestinians can have Christ as their Savior. The church has become God’s temple according to Paul (Eph 2:20–22), emphasizing the centrality of Christ as the cornerstone.[60] By adopting a biblical theology for our reading culture and seeing Christ at the center, our reading of the Scriptures in the twenty-first century becomes relevant, unifying, missional, and global.

  • Relevant: As we interpret the context, both locally and globally, we need to biblically tackle issues like religious extremism, peace-making, identity, and nationality. 
  • Unifying: As we reflect on the history of divisions in the Holy Land, we must take into consideration the small and divided community we have become. Jesus prayed in John 17 that we will be one, emphasizing that our unity will be a sign to the world that the Father has sent the Son. Can our diversity become a reason to celebrate? How can we be respectful to one another’s theological views? 
  • Missional: How can we emphasize the great commission, yet we forget the great commandment to love our neighbor? Jews and Muslims? 
  • Global: Developing a reading culture should be global, ‘theology from the margins’; theology that gives voice to the Global South perspective and challenges the monopoly of the West on theology. 

As we read the Scriptures, our prayers should be that we purify our hearts to help our brothers and sisters to draw closer to Jesus. Developing a reading culture will help us understand what is complex. However, we would be remiss if we did not remind ourselves that we must rely on the Holy Spirit in our hermeneutical task. Relying on the Spirit should always be our starting point in the process of illumination. Roy Zuck summarizes the role of the Holy Spirit in hermeneutics61 and the following is a summary of the crucial elements for proper interpretation and application:

  • Salvation
  • Spiritual maturity
  • Diligent study
  • Common sense and logic
  • Humble dependence on the Spirit for discernment

As we seek to develop a reading culture, we do so particularly to obtain information and understanding about the Scriptures, to worship God, to create liturgy, to develop theology, to teach, preach, provide pastoral care, and for spiritual formation in a region that yearns for it. If the Bible is to retain its integrity as God’s Word to his people, we are required to understand the intention of his message. Our interpretation is not perfect, yet God works through the interpretation of his people as they tune their ears to listen to his voice.

Conclusion: Faithfulness and the Evangelical Hermeneutic of Scripture

How should we evangelicals read the Bible and does it really matter how we read it? In this paper, we put forward the analogy of the anchored set for understanding how we as global evangelicals might be faithful in our reading of the Bible. We suggest that faithfulness is the goal because reading Scripture well has everything to do with our identity and mission as evangelicals. We believe that faithfulness must be evident in how we understand the Bible (the anchor), our tradition (the chain), and our contexts (the ship). We are in essence striving for a broader faithfulness toward our God, our siblings in the church, and our neighbors in the world. And in this regard, faithfulness is how our evangelical hermeneutic might be deemed credible in our witness to the world.

Then what does hermeneutical faithfulness look like? First, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to God and his speaking in Scripture. Thus, faithfulness starts with canon sense, that is, the affirmation of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture as God’s authoritative Word. This anchor of God’s Word, embedded in its historical, literary, and canonical seabed, is trustworthy and effective as it still speaks powerfully to the world to reveal the Triune God and the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Our hermeneutical faithfulness toward God, then, is not only a recognition of this nature of Scripture but also a submission to its authority and message in worship and discipleship as the church.

Second, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to our brothers and sisters in the church. Thus, faithfulness builds on canon sense toward catholic sensibility, that is, the reading of the Bible with all the communion of saints. On the one hand, catholic sensibility gives our hermeneutic universal scope. Local churches in all their variety are part of the universal confessing church and so our reading of Scripture must honor that unity. Local readers cannot interpret Scripture in isolation, nor claim any local interpretation to have final say and authority. On the other hand, catholic sensibility connects our hermeneutic to the anchor of Scripture by the chain of tradition, that is, the biblical interpretations of the past church. The elder siblings of the confessing church of the past who have read the Bible for faith, practice, and mission both inform and ground our hermeneutic. We are together part of the chain that both receives and passes on the good news of the gospel through the right reading of Scripture in the power of the Spirit. Evangelicals must reconnect our biblical interpretation to the Great Tradition in order to recover faithfulness and credibility.

Third, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to our neighbors in the world, as a witness to them. Thus, faithfulness builds on canon sense and catholic sensibility toward contextual sensitivity, that is, the reading of the Bible for relevance and discipleship in the local context. On the one hand, contextual sensitivity means every culture must encounter afresh the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Bible and that this gospel must be read and interpreted from the ship among the waves of local culture. We suggest that faithfulness means developing a contextualized Scripture reading culture in the local church context. Thus, Spirit-led contextualization is necessary and desirable, even as we are convinced that the message of the gospel in Scripture is universal. On the other hand, contextual sensitivity takes for granted the unchanging anchor of Scripture and that although every Scripture must be interpreted by those on the floating ship, the contexts of the winds and waves must not skew and change the essential message of the gospel in Scripture. In other words, the dangers of over-contextualization and relying solely on our contexts for meaning are kept in check and overcome. Thus, contextual diversity is both welcomed wholeheartedly and assessed carefully in a faithful evangelical hermeneutic. 

So, do we evangelicals understand what we are reading? In this Lausanne paper, the international team of evangelical Bible readers and theologians sought to do the ministry of Philip in Acts 8, to be led by the Spirit and to guide our evangelical sisters and brothers of the global church in the faithful reading of Scripture. We thank God that we do not stand alone in this task, that God has blessed our communion with the Spirit-led insights, local faith experiences, and learned perspectives of the global evangelical church. Perhaps the strength of our fellowship might be measured by our diverse yet unified reading of Scripture for the sake of our collective transformation and witness in the world. Reading Scripture together as the global movement of evangelical churches, then, is the only faithful and credible evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture. And in this way, the church will indeed declare and display Christ together, to the glory of God.

Recommended Resources

‘Lausanne Occasional Paper 2: The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture’. Accessed 17 October 2023. https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2.

Stott, John. ‘Lausanne Occasional Paper 3: The Lausanne Covenant: An Exposition and Commentary by John Stott’. Accessed 17 October 2023. https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-3

The Cape Town Commitment. Accessed 17 October 2023. https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment.

Atsen, Isuwa. A Tapestry of Global Christology: Weaving a Three-Stranded Theological Cord. Langham Monographs. Carlisle: Langham, 2022.

Carson, D.A., ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Carter, Craig A. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Fee, Gordon D. and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

George, Timothy. Reading Scripture with the Reformers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.

Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Revised and expanded. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006.

Ragui, Taimaya. Confessing Community: An Entryway to Theological Interpretation in North East India. Philadelphia: Fortress, 2023.

Ramm, Bernard. Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999. 

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Theological Interpretation of the New Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. and Treier, Daniel J. Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

  1. ‘The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture’, accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, B. The Contextual Approach, para. 4.
  2. The Lausanne Covenant, accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant, 2. The Authority and Power of the Bible. Similarly, The Cape Town Commitment (accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment, 6. We love God’s Word) reads, ‘we also rejoice that the Holy Spirit illumines the minds of God’s people so that the Bible continues to speak God’s truth in fresh ways to people in every culture.’
  3. ‘The Willowbank Report’, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, C. The Learning Community, para. 1.
  4. Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 32–36, esp. 35. ‘Bounded sets’ and ‘centered sets’ first mentioned to define ‘Christian’ in ‘Conversion, Culture, and Cognitive Categories: How much must Papayya ‘know’ about the Gospel to be converted?’ Gospel in Context 1.4 (1978): 24–29.
  5. R. Albert Mohler Jr., ‘Confessional Evangelicalism’, in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. A.D. Naselli and C. Hansen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 75–79.
  6. Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture; Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 50–53. In a presentation given to the Evangelical Hermeneutics Team of the Theology Working Group on 28 February 2023, Vanhoozer developed the anchored set for greater clarity to the role of the church in evangelical hermeneutics.
  7. Timothy George, ‘Evangelicals and Others’, First Things 160 (2006): 15; ‘A Peace Plan for the Gender War’, Christianity Today, 1 November 2005, 52; ‘Introduction: The Faith We Confess’, in Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, ed. T. George (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), xix.
  8. Vanhoozer suggests these three criteria for reading Scripture: canon sense, catholic sensibility, and contextual sensitivity. See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘May We Go Beyond What Is Written After All? The Pattern of Theological Authority and the Problem of Doctrinal Development’, in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 788–90.
  9. John Webster, The Culture of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 61–75.
  10. Gen 12:1–3; Exod 19:3–6; Jer 31:31–34; Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44; 1 Pet 2:9–10.
  11. Luke 24:45–47; John 5:39; John 15:1; Israel as God’s vine: Ps 80:8–15; Isa 5:1–7.
  12. Matt 1:22–23; 2 Cor 8:15; eg see an echo of Isa 45:18–24 in Phil 2:9–11.
  13. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 19–20.
  14. 2 Pet 1:20, 21.
  15. Reflected in a passage like 2 Pet 3:15–16.
  16. See, for example, Luke 1:1–4, where the author of the Gospel explains how he made use of eye-witness records he could gather.
  17. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.
  18. Isa 52:7; Mark 1:14–15; Phil 1:27; 2:5; 3:20.
  19. Luke 24:44–48; the yoke of Jesus’ teachings (Matt 11:28–30; 28:18–20); Rom 8:28–30; Gal 6:2; Col 2:9–10; 3:16.
  20. Matt 6:10; 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; Rev 5:9–10.
  21. Acts 12:24 and 19:20 (‘the word of the Lord’) give similar summaries of the progress of the ‘word of God.’ Others are found in Acts 9:31 and 16:5.
  22. NIDNTTE 3:166; TDNT 4:116.
  23. The Fourth Lausanne Congress in Seoul 2024 will feature readings, meditations, and expositions from the Book of Acts.
  24. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-1, accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant. The Purpose of God. Similarly, The Cape Town Commitment (accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment) begins with ‘love for the living God’ and the three persons of the Godhead before the confession about the love for ‘God’s Word’.
  25. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.
  26. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 15 September 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.
  27. The Cape Town Commitment, VI, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment. We love God’s Word states, ‘We receive the whole Bible as the Word of God, inspired by God’s Spirit, spoken and written through human authors.’
  28. Other examples include John 4:9b.
  29. For example, see John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 28.
  30. Thus, The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant. The Authority and Power of the Bible states, ‘We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God.’
  31. The Cape Town Commitment, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment, 6. We love God’s Word) reads, ‘. . . we also rejoice that the Holy Spirit illumines the minds of God’s people so that the Bible continues to speak God’s truth in fresh ways to people in every culture.’
  32. See The Lausanne Covenant, pt-4, accessed 17 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.
  33. See Joel 2:28–32 in Acts 2:14–22 and Ps 16:8–11 and 110:1 in Acts 2:24–36.
  34. See, eg Isa 29:13, Ezek 33:31, Matt 7:21, Luke 6:46, John 13:13, Titus 1:16, 1 John 2:3–6.
  35. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.
  36. The Cape Town Commitment, pt-6, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment.
  37. See Rom 12:4–5; 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19–20; 12:27; Eph 1:23; Col 1:18.
  38. The Cape Town Commitment, pt-6, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment.
  39. ‘The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture’, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, B. The Contextual Approach, para. 1.
  40. ‘The Willowbank Report’, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, C. The Learning Community, para. 3.
  41. ‘The Willowbank Report: Consultation on Gospel and Culture’, accessed 4 August 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-2.
  42. Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 23.
  43. ‘The Willowbank Report’, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, B. The Contextual Approach, para. 2.
  44. Gerald Anderson, ‘A Moratorium on Missionaries?’ The Christian Century 91.2 (16 January 1974): 43.
  45. Theological Education Fund, Ministry in Context: The Third Mandate Programme of the Theological Education Fund 1970–77 (Bromley: Theological Education Fund, 1972), 30.
  46. Influential missiologists Charles Taber, Charles Kraft and Eugene A. Nida adopt this view. See in William G. Larkin, Culture and Biblical Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Applying Authoritative Word in a Relativistic Age (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 178.
  47. D.A. Carson, ‘Hermeneutics: A Brief Assessment of Some Recent Trends’, Themelios 5, no. 2 (January 1980): 20.
  48. ‘The Willowbank Report’, 1. The Biblical Basis of Culture, para. 3.
  49. J.S. Mbiti, ‘African Indigenous Culture in Relation to Evangelism and Church Development’, in The Gospel and Frontier Peoples, ed. R. Pierce Beaver (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1973), 79–95.
  50. ‘The Willowbank Report’, 4. Understanding God’s Word Today, B. The Contextual Approach, para. 2.
  51. Stephen T. Pardue, Why Evangelical Theology Needs the Global Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2023), 50.
  52. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 248.
  53. eg Heb 1:1; Eph 3:10; Rev 7:9.
  54. The Lausanne Covenant, pt-2, accessed 16 October 2023, https://lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant. This section of the LC cites the following verses: 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; John 10:35; Isa 55:11; 1 Cor 1:21; Rom 1:16, Matt 5:17,18; Jude 3; Eph 1:17,18; 3:10,18.
  55. Refer Gary Burge, ‘The Greatest Story Never Read’, Christianity Today 43 (9 August 1999): 45–49.
  56. Kevin Vanhoozer, ‘Foreword’ in J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 9.
  57. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics (Baker Academic, 1999), 144.
  58. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 149.
  59. Christopher Hall, ‘How does culture affect the way we understand Scripture?’ Christianity Today, Christian Bible Studies, 21 April 2015.
  60. For further scriptural references, see 1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16–18; Acts 7:48–49; Gal 4:25; Heb 12:22–23; John 21:2–3.
  61. R.B. Zuck, ‘The Role of the Holy Spirit in Hermeneutics’, BSac 141 (1984): 120–29.