There is no substitute for reading the text of scripture, studying each part in context, and of course considering the biblical background as much as we can derive. Of course we all depend on scholars. The Bible translations we have are dependent on their work. And we gather from various sources in trying to understand the background of each text, say for example a book like Ephesians.
What I would caution us against is an interpretation of the text which is driven by our theology, rather than our theology being driven by the interpretation of the text. I say interpretation, not precisely the text itself, because the text can be appropriated only through interpretation. In order for it to matter to us at all, we need to interpret it. I’m not suggesting we’re on our own in that. We need the Holy Spirit and the church to do that. We can make our contribution, but it is as one of the community. A large part of this has actually already been done just through the work of Bible translation alone. Translation is interpretation. And yet a significant part of interpretation, we undertake as we read and meditate on any text. As has been wisely suggested, I’m sure by many (N. T. Wright happens to come to my mind on this now), it has been well suggested that it is good to read an entire book in one sitting, or in as few sittings as possible (some are rather long, such as Isaiah) to get an overall feel for the book as a whole.
When it’s all said and done, it is naive to suppose that our theology won’t to some extent influence the text, or more precisely the interpretation of the text. We read nothing in a vacuum or without subjectivity. Nor are we meant to, part of the freshness of God’s word for each community, time and place through the Spirit coming through in one’s tradition, reason and experience. But our goal should be, insofar as possible, to let the text speak for itself. Of course in its context. Open to shaping our thinking, yes- perhaps reforming our theology. And with the goal of speaking into our day. One example:
We need to read that in its immediate context, and it helps when we have Biblical background. The NIV quoted from here is more literal, the NLT brings in something of that biblical background legitimately, I think, into the text:
We now understand better what Jesus meant when he spoke these words. But it remains for us to consider what this could mean for us today, or others in other contexts. In this case our theology hopefully derived from the text as a whole will factor into that. Our view of violence and the practice of Jesus’ followers in relation to that. Our view of church and state, even of whether or not this text speaks directly to us, or can be appropriated only in some secondary sense.
Without naively thinking we can come objectively to the text, our goal should be to let the text speak for itself. Even if that means our past interpretation, understanding, indeed our theology is challenged. And to try, insofar as it’s possible, not to import some pet teaching into it to make a point that either the text is not making, or is not making with the same emphasis we are making. That is the kind of reading, interpretation and teaching that is needed, something we need to strive for. In Jesus together in this and for the world.