Asking Interpretive Questions
A key indicator revealing the maturity of the Bible student’s exegetical thought process is the ability to ask well informed questions of the text. To quote Fee and Stuart, “The key to good exegesis, and therefore a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text!” The quality of one’s interpretation will often depend upon the quality of one’s interpretive questions, and thus we now turn to the task of learning to “ask the right questions of the text”.
In the arrangement of the inductive method, interpretive questions essentially bridge the gap between observation and interpretation. One’s observations should prompt the asking of good questions (observation having revealed the interpretive issues inherent within the text), and as those questions are answered, the interpretation of the text will be fleshed out.
The ability to ask well informed questions does not come easily or automatically. Indeed, this is an art that develops over a lifetime of inquisitive study. Even the concept of a “well informed question” is an oxymoron of sorts – if we are so well informed, then why should we have the need to ask or answer any questions of the text? One of the ironic aspects of education is that as you learn more you realize how much more there is to learn. In the same way, as your level of biblical literacy rises, you learn to ask more exegetically detailed questions that weigh in on the issues of context, theology, lexicology, authorial intent, literary intent, cultural relativity and a host of text critical issues. Although the task may seem daunting, the student should be encouraged that the ability to ask good interpretive questions becomes easier with practice, almost to the point of being habitual or natural. For the beginning student, the following hints may aid in learning to ask quality interpretive questions:
1. Allow your observations to be a springboard for your interpretive questions. Perhaps you have observed a difference between translations, encountered a particularly difficult or important non-routine term, or observed an illustration whose point needs clarification. Maybe you have noticed an OT verse being quoted in the NT, or a difficult grammatical structure, or a figure of speech whose function is unclear. As you observe the text, be sure to take note of relevant questions as they come to light.
2. Simple questions of who, why, where, what and how may be a good starting point, but the serious student will want to learn to ask more detailed questions that are contextually particular to the text at hand.
3. Interpretive questions should be both broad (questions of intent and purpose) and narrow (questions pertaining to word meaning, etc…).
4. Learn to speculate as to possible answers when asking interpretive questions. Speculative answers will in turn often lead to more developed and precise questions. An interpretive question can and often should speculate as to possible answers even as framed in the question itself.
5. Allow your knowledge of biblical and theological issues to influence you in the question asking process. The beginning student will have less of a framework of knowledge to work within, yet with time his “breadth of knowledge” will expand and he will ask more informed questions with better speculative tendencies.
6. Remember, the process of asking interpretive questions will begin with observation, but may be further enhanced during the process of interpretation. Furthermore, additional questions may need to be asked even after the steps of interpretation are completed in light of the fact that some of the hardest questions pertain to matters of application, not interpretation.
As an example of the kind of interpretive questions that may be asked of a particular text, note the following example from James 1:2-8:
James 1:2-8 NIV 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. 6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.
VS. 2 – To whom is James writing? Is he writing to Christians (brothers in faith), Jews (ethnic brothers), or Jewish Christians? Are brethren in this context referring to men and women? What impact might this question (regarding the identity of the recipients) have on the purpose/message of the book as a whole?
Is vs. 2 referring to trials or temptations (as in KJV)? If these are trials, then do they refer to everyday problems or specifically to persecutions for the faith? Are these trials brought on by God with a specific purpose, or are these trials random in purpose but profitable as to result? Is the verb “fall” active or passive, and what implications would the voice of the verb have in interpretation and application?
VS. 3 – To what does faith refer? Does “faith” in this context refer to the body of Christian doctrine, does it refer to one’s faith in God’s control over your individual circumstances, or does it refer to your belief in God’s existence? Does patience imply endurance as to a proper godly response to a given trial while the trial is taking place (a patience to not “crack” under the pressure and respond sinfully)? Does patience come naturally, or must we “put it on”? Will correlation provide any insights here?
VS. 4 – Does the connective “that”, refer in this context to purpose or result? Does the “perfect” refer to sinless perfection or maturity? Do trials then produce Christian maturity in a general sense, or only in regards to encountering trials?
VS. 5 – What class condition does verse five incorporate? To what does wisdom refer: wisdom in general, or wisdom in how to respond properly to trials, or perhaps wisdom in how to discern the patience producing aspect or lesson of the trial? Can this promise of God’s granting wisdom be applied outside of the context of trials? For the promise to be granted, must the one who asks be a believer? Must the one who asks be “without reproach”, or does this statement refer to the fact that God does not hold the one who asks guilty of sin?
VS. 6-8 – Does the requirement regarding how one asks (in faith) apply only to the context of asking for wisdom, or does it apply to all prayers of petition? Does the reference to a double-minded man have theological implications regarding his soteriological position? Are there any parallels to the double-minded man in other biblical passages?