4) Focus on General Reading
A fourth major safeguard to apocalyptic interpretation is to spend the majority of one’s study time reading the Bible rather than searching through a concordance. An obsession with the various details of the Bible can lead one away from its central thrust. Without safeguards the use of a concordance may cause us to focus on texts apart from their contexts.
When you read biblical books from beginning to end the biblical author is in control of the order and flow of the material. The author leads you naturally from one idea to the next, so your exposure to the Bible is not controlled by any need arising from within yourself or from your background. Broad reading of the Bible, therefore, anchors the interpreter in the intentions of the original writers and helps the interpreter to get the “big picture” view that provides the best safeguard against bizarre interpretations of its isolated parts. General reading naturally encourages a teachable spirit and helps you see the text as it was intended to be read. The Bible is not supposed to learn from us; we are supposed to learn from the Bible.
This aspect of a “life hermeneutic” is particularly important in the computer age. Computers have been a great blessing to Bible study. But there is a dark side to their use. Thanks to the computer it is possible to spend hundreds of hours in “Bible study” without ever actually reading the Bible itself. The meanings you can draw from such study may be extremely impressive, yet have nothing to do with the original writer’s intention. It can be like taking a pair of scissors and cutting fifty texts out of your Bible, tossing them like a salad in a bowl, and finally pulling them out one by one and saying, “This sequence is from the Lord.” Whether the concordance is a print version or is computerized, the process puts the interpreter in control of how the Biblical text impacts on his or her understanding of truth.
The use of a concordance is an important piece in an overall hermeneutic for biblical study. But we need to keep in mind that when we use a concordance we are in control of what where we go and what we learn, whereas in broad reading the biblical writers are in control. In concordance study there is the danger of losing the forest in the midst of all the trees. Unless we spend the majority of our time in broad reading of the Bible, we will tend manipulate the text in service of our own agenda, even though we do not intend to do so.
5) The Criticism of Peers
Finally it is vital, in the study of apocalyptic as well as other biblical texts, to give careful attention to the criticism of peers (people who give similar attention to the Bible as you do), especially those who disagree with you or who are competent in the original languages and the tools of exegesis. One of the biggest problems in Biblical understanding is that each of us has a natural bent to self-deception (Jer 17:9). That self-deception runs so deep that sometimes, even if you are using the original text, praying, and doing a lot of general reading in the clear texts of the Bible, it is still possible to end up in a completely bizarre place. The best antidote to self-deception is to constantly subject one’s own understandings to the criticism of others who are making equally rigorous efforts to understand those texts.
It may be painful to listen to that kind of criticism. Nevertheless, such criticisms are particularly valuable when they come from people we naturally disagree with. People who disagree with us see things in the text that we would never see because of our particular blind spots and defense mechanisms. A sister in the church may be just as unteachable as I am, but if she has a different set of blind spots than I do, she will see things in the text that I would miss and I will see things that she would miss.
No one who studies the Bible with earnest prayer and self-distrust will want to ignore the apocalyptic parts of the Bible, just because they are difficult. On the contrary, those who saturate themselves in the big picture of the Bible that comes from broad reading of the clear texts, corrected by vigorous listening to others, will gain two great benefits as a result. They will stay out of the pit of sensationalism and date-setting. And they will enjoy the wonderful sense of assurance and identity that comes when one better understands the steady and reliable workings of God in human history.
4) Focus on General Reading