Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What is biblical interpretation?

Theory, Process, and Criteria

Yung Suk Kim asks important questions in Biblical Interpretation: Why do we care about the Bible and biblical interpretation? How do we know which interpretation is better? He expertly brings to the fore the essential elements of interpretation—the reader, the text, and the reading lens—and attempts to explore a set of criteria for solid interpretation. While celebrating the diversity of biblical interpretation, Kim warns that not all interpretations are valid, legitimate, or healthy because interpretation involves the complex process of what he calls critical contextual biblical interpretation. He suggests that readers engage with the text by asking important questions of their own: Why do we read? How do we read? and What do we read?

Unique features
This book explains the process and nature of biblical interpretation that covers a wide array of interpretive approaches at work today. Each chapter is followed by questions for further reflection or discussion. The last chapter has a test case of critical contextual biblical interpretation, using the texts that have a theme of “the kingdom of God” in the Bible. Readers will have time to engage these related texts and theme of the kingdom, being aware of a critical process of interpretation and a set of criteria for sound interpretation in mind.

Why did I write this book?
The current biblical scholarship has tensions between a traditional, historical approach and a non-traditional, contextual, ideological approach. I wrote this book to address various issues of fragmentary biblical scholarship and to suggest an overall reading paradigm or a strategy of interpretation that considers both a critical and contextual nature of biblical interpretation. The nature and goal of biblical interpretation is not merely to decode ancient texts on their own but to engage them both in ancient and contemporary contexts so that we may find ourselves deeply challenged toward a transformation of the self, neighbors, and the world.

What do colleagues say about this book? (Endorsement)
Kim analyzes the process of biblical interpretation, with provocative accent. While acknowledging the value of historical-critical and literary-narrative contributions, Kim privileges the reader-response dimension. His contribution is distinctive in its depth analysis of the interplay between the interpreter and the text.  He takes account of the expected diversity of interpretation, given the diverse storied-life experiences of interpreters.  He draws on numerous contemporary theorists (Gadamer, Lacan, Foucault, Palmer), to blend theory with what, why, and how “real readers” understand Scripture differently.  But he also speaks of “good” and “bad” interpretation, and here his judgments deal with how interpreters understand key biblical motifs such as kingdom of God, atonement, subordination, and mutuality.  The book is an enriching collateral resource for graduate-level courses on biblical interpretation.
—Willard Swartley, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

In this compelling introduction to the dynamics of Biblical interpretation Yung Suk Kim builds on established methods of interpretation to promote new strategies of reading in which the question of what the text means is bound together with questions about the identity and circumstances of readers. With sensitivity to the ethics of interpretation and the values of solidarity and diversity, this book opens a way to focus on timely interpretations of the Biblical text for today that engage with but are not limited to an original meaning complex. 
Ray Pickett, Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

At last, I have found that brief introduction to biblical interpretation I’ve been looking for! Kim clearly and succinctly lays out the issues and options, and, to encourage the reader to go deeper, he includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter. I look forward to using this book in class! I could also see it being used in upper-level undergraduate religion courses and even in church study groups. May this gem have a long and well-traveled life!
Michael Willett Newheart, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Howard University School of Divinity

Yung Suk Kim in his book Biblical Interpretation provides a taut and exciting analysis of various approaches to biblical interpretation that have moved to the forefront of textuality and postmodern criticism. This book provides a comprehensive, hopeful, and practical vision to the reader, scholar, and preacher for understanding biblical texts in more critical and egalitarian ways.  Yung Suk Kim's vision is to bring many new, and heretofore unheard voices, to the table in an effort to understand and interpret biblical texts in fresh and creative ways--ways that will make pulpit preaching a direct beneficiary of the entire process.  In this sense, he contributes to the liberation of all peoples and advances the art of reading and interpretation as a necessary and powerful contextual event.
James Henry Harris, Professor of preaching and practical theology at the Graduate School of Theology, Virginia Union University

Questions for further reflection or discussion


1. What is biblical authority? How do we know which authority we
should follow? Who decides?
2. What is the relation between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New
Testament? Is there continuity or discontinuity between them? Explain
in each case.
3. What is textual criticism? Why are there so many variant readings in
manuscript traditions? What do they reveal?
4. Why does translation matter? Compare the following texts of the two
translation versions (NRSV and NIV): Rom 3:21–26. What are major
differences between these two versions? On other occasions, translation
of a particular word (Greek or Hebrew) is critical. Look at the
following Greek words and compare the translation of each word in
different English versions: erga nomou (Gal 2:16) and katalambano
(John 1:5).
5. Why does interpretation matter? What is the role of the reader? Explain
the importance of interpretation using erga nomou (Gal 2:16).
6. Using John 14:6 (“I am the way”), discuss various ways of interpreting
“the way.” What are the three elements of interpretation?


1. Think about the idea of text. Is it fixed or open?
2. What does the text refer to? Who is the author? Single or collective?
3. Is the Bible different from the other sacred books? In what ways? Is
there similarity or difference?
4. How are individual texts authoritative or sacred? Who decides?
5. Are all the books of the Bible equally valid and important or selectively
authoritative? Why?
6. List various ways of reading texts. Why are there many ways? Is the
diversity of textual methods good or dangerous?
7. Evaluate the statement “texts do not mean, but we mean with texts.”


1. What is the concept of context or contextuality? Is it limited to the
reader or to the text?
2. Why is there diversity of life contexts in which people read the Bible?
3. Are ancient readers of the texts also contextual? Here ancient readers
refer to the members of the religious community for whom particular
texts are produced or read.
4. Is it possible that modern readers can communicate with ancient
readers? What is the condition for such a communication and what
does it mean to communicate in this context?
5. Why is the contextuality of modern readers important in interpreting
texts? Is a contextual reading an eisegesis in the sense that it is a willynilly
reading? What is the condition to avoid an eisegesis?
6. Does a text address all life contexts that we may need to be resolved?
7. What is the particular role of the reader when he or she engages the


1. What is engagement of the text and the reader? Is it possible to interpret
the text without engaging? What difference is there between an
engaged reading and disengaged reading?
2. Think about the three elements of biblical interpretation: the reader,
theological lens, and the text. Does this three-element-interpretation
make sense? Why or why not?
3. Talk about the needs of the reader. Explain the relation between the
reader’s needs and the text’s role. Does the text address all issues of
the reader?
4. What is a theological lens? How do theological concepts of vocabulary
affect the reader? Also, talk about the role of text.
5. Think about atonement as you read the idea of “Christ died for us”
in Rom 5:8, Gal 1:4, 1 Thess 5:6–10, and Mark 10:45. How many
concepts of atonement are possible? Which view of atonement is the
better one? Why?
6. What is the role of the reader in deciding the right interpretation?


1. What is bad interpretation? What are some symptoms of it? Be specific
and take an example from your experience.
2. Why are bad interpretations not checked? What motivation is behind
3. What do you think the best criteria for biblical interpretation will be?
List all of them and compare with others.
4. Discuss the suggested criteria for solid interpretation in this chapter:
critical diversity and solidarity, congruence, and balance.
5. Interpret John 14:1–21 and develop your own set of criteria for solid
interpretation. Explain them to others. This topic may be a group

CHAPTER 6                         

1. In your view, what are the most important issues facing humanity or
Christians in particular, as you contemplate on the kingdom of God?
2. Read the two accounts of creation in Gen 1–2, and discuss meaning
of human beings in terms of the purpose of human life in the world.
3. How do we understand human suffering or vulnerability of human
lives as we think of the kingdom of God?
4. A mega-church can be evidence of failure of a mission started by Jesus.
Do you agree?
5. When and why is the kingdom (malkuth in Hebrew) introduced and
emphasized in the Hebrew Scriptures? Include times of prosperity
and suffering.
6. Does the New Testament continue the tradition of the kingdom of
God portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures? Talk about some aspects of
continuity and some aspects of discontinuity.
7. Discuss the different uses of the kingdom of God in the New Testament.
How is each Gospel different? Compare with Paul’s letters. How
is the kingdom of God in Paul’s letters different from the so-called
Deutero-Pauline and Pastorals?
8. Compare the historical Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. Is
his teaching continued in the canonical Gospels? If different, what is
his primary teaching about it?
9. Is the historical Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God primarily
apocalyptic or sapiential?
10. What is the kingdom of God for you? Address specific issues about
the kingdom of God. Discuss pros and cons of a few readings of the
kingdom of God: God’s reign of justice as the kingdom of God, apocalyptic
reality of a new world as the kingdom of God, the church as
the kingdom of God, and personal experience of God’s grace as the
kingdom of God.
11. How can you relate Jesus’ death to the kingdom of God? Relationships?