When we try to make sense out of something we are reading, our first step is to just figure out what the words, sentences, and paragraphs mean. What does that word mean? What’s going on in the story? Our second step often involves asking ourselves questions about the author. Where is she coming from? What is her context? What is her intent? Those first two steps inform our third step that involves integrating the first two steps to see what, if anything, it means for us. How does this fit into my understanding of the world? How does this relate to me? Do I agree with her?
Each of these three steps that we take to make sense of what we read is mirrored by the three layers of meaning we can derive from Scripture. The immediate layer of meaning tells us about what happens in a story. The covenantal layer of meaning tells us about where God, the divine Author, is coming from with this story. The metanarrative layer of meaning tell us about how this story, God, and we ourselves are integrated in God’s grand cosmic plan of redemption.
In our first step of making sense of what we read, we need to begin with the book’s genre. Genres are simply categories. We can use them to organize music, literature, or art so that we can better understand and appreciate the pieces we encounter. One advantage of genres is that they carry a set of expectations and know-how with them that help us to understand what a particular piece is trying to do. We can then use that genre know-how to interpret what's going on in a piece. For example, if we have some poetry genre know-how, we can read these few lines from Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" and understand that Frost probably means something more than a literal walk through a wood.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
So also, the Bible contains genres, and we will be better equipped to understand its meanings if we acquire some genre know-how. In other words, we will have an easier time understanding what Scripture is saying if we first understand how Scripture is saying it. More than that, one of the most common difficulties people have when reading the Bible derives from a lack of know-how about biblical genres.
In our second step of making sense of what we read in the Bible, we want to ask two sets of questions about the author of the biblical books we’re reading. Each set of questions should inform the other.
The first set of questions concern the human author. Why was the human author writing in the first place? What was the author’s intent? What was the author’s historical context? How did the Spirit work with what was happening to the human author? Questions like these focus our attention on the stuff behind the biblical book.
The second set of questions concern the book as part of our biblical canon or set of books we believe comprise our Scripture. They focus our attention on the divine Author. How was this book used in ancient Israel and/or the early church? How does this book fit with the other books of the Bible? How did the Spirit work with the early hearers of this book to make its divine self-revelation apparent to them? If the first set of questions focus our attention on matters behind the book, these questions focus our attention on the stuff in front of the biblical book.
Combining these two sets of questions helps us when, for example, we find that we do not really know a lot about the original context or authorial intent of many Psalms. We do, however, know that ancient Israel and the early church used these for communal worship and private prayer.
This tells us how we should approach, understand, and use them ourselves. This integrating of the first two steps is our third step in making sense of what we read in the Bible. What happened in the biblical passage? How did the author and the community of believers make sense of what happened? How does what happened relate to me? In the metanarrative layer, we try to understand the Bible in terms of God’s grand redemption plan that takes place in four acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. At this layer, we seek to ground what happened in the Bible into this grand redemption plan. It is here that we also try to ground ourselves in that grand redemption plan. Questions on a grand scale and a personal scale are appropriate here, like ‘What does that tell me about who I am?’, ‘What is this world actually?’, ‘Who is God really?’.
This may all seem daunting at first, but don't be put off by it. Start small. Start where you are. This is the work of a lifetime. That is one reason why we read, re-read, and re-read our Scripture. It is our lifetime calling as disciples of Christ to have Scripture seep down into our bones.