What does it take to interpret Scripture correctly? Education? A seminary degree? Learning Greek and Hebrew? These are great and helpful things, but argues Curtis (Voice) Allen, they’re not the secret to becoming a good interpreter of Scripture. The secret is imitating Jesus. “Interpretation of Scripture, followed by right application, is the primary way that we are to be like God,” he writes in his new book, Education or Imitation?: Bible Interpretation for Dummies Like You and Me. “This is not an issue of education. It’s an issue of imitation” (p. 21). And through the book’s five short, but powerful chapters, Allen unpacks how “the call of imitation will walk hand in hand with interpretation” (p. 18).
Our problems with obedience begin not with a lack of education, but with bad interpretation. This has been mankind’s problem from the beginning, Allen argues, as he explains how Adam and Eve’s failure to rightly interpret God’s word led to their—and subsequently our—fall into sin.
“The first sin was an arrogance of interpretation,” he writes. “Ever since, mankind has suffered a continual plague of arrogance—the arrogance to act on our own view of what’s good and what isn’t. Adam and Eve chose to take upon themselves a false authority to interpret right from wrong. You and I regularly choose to act on the basis of that same false authority. In a way, we really have become like God, but it’s a cheap, shabby imitation” (p. 28).
By trusting in themselves that the serpent was right and that God was wrong, Adam and Eve took on an authority for themselves that they never truly had to begin with and the result was the interpretive chaos in which we now live. Our first parents’ folly is revisited throughout Scripture in the example of Saul who openly defied God’s command to devote everything to destruction in facing the Amalekites and ultimately in the ultimate earthly foes of Jesus, the Pharisees. The only way to correct our error? By interpreting as Jesus does.
This might seem like a “well, I should hope so,” kind of point, but consider how frequently we try to make the Bible about us, rather than about Jesus? What should I do in this or that situation, we often ask. Yet in doing so, argues Allen, we fail to imitate the primary interpreter of Scripture—who happens to be its primary object. “Jesus alone knows what all Scripture means because it is about him,” he writes (p. 44). Going deeper into this point, Allen draws a strong parallel between evangelism and discipleship, and interpretation and application. He explains:
We could boil the focus of Jesus’ life down to evangelism and discipleship, both of which he accomplishes by communicating accurate interpretation and urging right application of God’s Word. This reality is often dismissed when it comes to imitating what Jesus did, but some of the most amazing things recorded in Scripture are not actual miracles but the instances when God explains his own Word to people and then shows them how to apply it. This is the pattern of Christian discipleship, and one of the primary ways in which we should imitate our Lord. Interpretation and application of God’s Word is of the highest importance to Jesus. (p. 44)
This is a really helpful way to help people understand the purpose of proper interpretation—it’s a discipleship issue. Jesus gives His disciples the tools we need to correctly interpret the Scriptures; they are not hidden in the whitespace of the Bible, nor are they in some obscure passage. They exist plainly as we see Jesus again and again correct the Pharisees’ wrong interpretation of Scripture and offer right interpretation instead, by pointing back to Himself. This is the pattern we see in Matthew 12’s Sabbath encounters and even in Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. It’s also what we see in the Apostles’ teaching and the Church’s mission to evangelize and make disciples, both of which require interpretation and application of the Scriptures (see p. 79).
The book’s final chapter is one of its strongest as Allen seeks to break our me-centered perspective of Scripture, which reveals itself in selfish expectations (like interpreting God’s promise that He works all things for our good according to His purposes means we get our best life now) and selective attention (reading only the parts that “mean” something to us—see chapter five). We constantly need to be reminded that the Bible is not about us and that if we are to be disciples, we need the whole counsel of God, not merely the parts that give us a warm-fuzzy.
As I’ve considered the message of Education or Imitation, only one concern has really come up—and it’s (perhaps ironically) one of interpretation. I wonder if, despite his insistence that education is good and beneficial, some might seek to use the book as further fuel for some parts of Western Christianity’s love affair with anti-intellectualism. There were a few times where I found that Allen risk’s call to “imitation over education” was perhaps a bit overstated as education is a part of imitation. The most clearly Allen gets to this is on the closing page of the book, where he writes:
[E]ducation isn’t bad. I encourage you to pursue it if you can. It will make a huge difference in helping you to interpret Scripture. I’m not calling for picket lines in front the local Bible college. If you feel called to that kind of education, go! But if you can’t go, may you grow to read, interpret, and apply God’s Word rightly, for if you are a Christian there is nothing standing in your way. (p. 93)
Regardless of this concern (which is a very minor one), I believe Education or Imitation will be a great benefit to anyone who reads it—especially those who think they’re not “smart” enough to understand the Bible. “If you are a Christian, there is nothing standing in your way” of interpreting and applying the Scriptures. Rejoice and be encouraged!
Title: Education or Imitation?: Bible Interpretation for Dummies Like You and Me
Author: Curtis (Voice) Allen
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2012)