Right now I’m reading The Word of God for the People of God: an Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture by J. Todd Billings. It is absolutely fantastic and should be required reading in catechism/for any Christian. There is a distinction he makes in the book I found profoundly helpful in explaining my frustration with Christians (also anyone I suppose) and how we read Scripture.
The distinction is between explanation and understanding.
Understanding a text (Billings means a written text, but I think it could apply to any ‘text’ like speech, events, etc) is transformative; it is an encounter that changes us. We certainly bring biases and preconceptions and presuppositions with us when we read. That’s what makes textual understanding possible in the first place! But we are not left as we are. An encounter with the text as ‘other,’ as something not totally under your control, presses back on us and changes us and our conceptions/presuppositions. This is especially so with reading Scripture, because it is the Holy Spirit that is active, piercing our hearts.
Understanding is knowing what Scripture is about (not just knowing about Scripture). Or, rather who it is about: Jesus Christ. Understanding recognizes the continuity inherent in the whole Bible, the large narrative sweep of God acting for our and the world’s salvation. Being open to such things is a vulnerability that submits oneself to being transformed into Christlikeness by the Spirit to the glory of the Father (Trinitarian theology is central in Billing’s account, and should be in any account of reading Scripture). We are not masters over the text, but are rather disciples awaiting instruction to which we can respond, “thy will be done.”
Contrast this with the role of explanation in interpretation. Since “texts do not fall from the sky as catalysts of transformation,” but rather “emerge through a process of creaturely production,” we need tools to enable us to really grapple with the text (p. 38). These tools, or methods, include things like historic and linguistic analysis, and sociohistorical and cultural research; in short, anything that explains “the contextually located features of the text” (p. 38). God, in His wisdom, has decided to work through human agents in communicating with us, ultimately becoming a human in Jesus of Nazareth that we may see the Father in the face of Jesus. Such study is necessary, especially since it should treat with seriousness that God really did become a human in Jesus.
According to Billings, proper interpretation is both understanding and explanation. However, I think explaining trips many of us up precisely because its lucidity and power appears all-encompassing; when we’ve explained the cultural context, we think we’ve “explained” the text and figured it out: now we know and have knowledge. For example, when we read the Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7, we could do our historical homework and discover that Isaiah, at the time, assured Ahaz, king of Judah, of God’s presence and victory over enemies (see here). So is that it? Have we now explained and understood Isaiah 7? Hardly. We’ve explained, but not understood that the deep meaning of the text, since Scripture is ultimately God speaking, is God continuing His saving activity to right what has gone so wrong since Genesis 3. There is deeper theological meaning beyond the historical meaning since the Bible is a unity held together by the true Author: God’s Spirit
Since scripture is not like any other book, it cannot be reduced to its cultural features. However, neither can those cultural features be ignored. We need solid historical and critical study, but it must also be theologically oriented. After all, “while explaining contextually located features of the text is important, the Bible ultimately consists of creaturely texts that are produced and sanctified by the Spirit of God to be God’s own transforming word in Christ” (p. 39).
All study of Scripture must be properly theologically informed, both the historical explanation side as well as the understanding side. Too much of one and we cut ourselves off from what the Spirit has said and is saying through the Scriptures about Christ to the glory of the Father. We miss encounters with the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.