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Simplicity and Simplification December 10, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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Hello all. Today I want to talk about two important ideas: simplicity and simplification. These are not technical terms. I actually just picked these two words because they sound similar and hopefully will be more memorable. I am using the word simplicity to refer to the idea that the authors of the Bible wrote with the intention that they would be understood. Although they may talk about complex ideas, they put these ideas in simple enough terms for their hearers to understand. Simplification on the other hand is an interpretive procedure where we take large (or small) blocks of text and try to simplify them to get to the basic meaning that is being conveyed. These two ideas are related. On the one hand the author has a basic idea that he is trying to get across and is writing with the goal that his meaning would be understood. On the other hand, we as readers should strive to get at the meaning that is being conveyed. Let us take a closer look at these two ideas.

Simplicity

Again simplicity is the idea that the author writes in such a way as to be understood. What this means is that the simple meaning should be taken over the complex one.  Sometimes people come up with interpretations that are extremely complex. They may overemphasize a word study or read too much into a cultural issue.  This brings us back to the importance of context. Reading a verse in its context limits its possible meanings to those that fit in with the surrounding verses. There is a trend out there to find “hidden” meanings in the text. People will analyze a verse way beyond the initial intent just to find something new or profound. Just because something may sound good or logical does not make it right. The authors of Scripture did not inject their writings with complex hidden meanings that only a few select individuals would be able to figure out. They wanted people to understand what they wrote. The Bible as a whole is pretty clear. You can learn how to be saved and what to do from there just by reading it. Verses like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “pray continually” do not need to be hyper analyzed to figure out what they mean. Our problem is not a lack of understanding of certain portions of scripture, but a lack of application of the portions we do understand. When we come to obscure passages, it is good to study them and try to interpret them. But it is more important to live out the truths that we already know then to search out new ones, especially if that means we force an interpretation onto a passage. Although the authors of the text tried to be clear, there are just some things that we will not understand because we are in a different time and culture. In our interpretation of Scripture we need to keep it simple. Once we bring in a bunch of extra-biblical sources and the interpretation starts to become complex we should step back and make sure we are staying in the context and that we are reading it the way the author intended for it to be read.

Simplification

ABC Always Be Condensing. This is the general approach we should take when we come to Scripture. Unless you are reading a proverb it is best to read more than one verse at a time. The smallest unit you should interpret is a paragraph. When you read a paragraph or a chapter the goal is to find the main idea and simplify that down to its most basic components. In order to fully understand the intricacies of a text, we need to strip it down to its most basic idea and then we can see how all the pieces fit together. If you are reading a narrative, try and figure out the basic action that is going on. This could be Saul’s disobedience in 1 Sam 15 or Job’s restoration at the end of Job 42. when reading discourse material (like an epistle or a prophecy) we should look for the main point the speaker is making. What is the main point of John 15? What is Paul saying in Rom. 8?  As we read a paragraph or a chapter or a section of a book or an entire book, we should look for the ideas and themes that tie it together. If we can simplify a few paragraphs into their main ideas then we can take those and see what the bigger is of the chapter that those paragraphs make up is. Our goal is to take the text, whether it is a paragraph, a chapter or a larger section and simplify it down to a one sentence summary. The more that you understand something, the easier it is to simplify it. If the simplest explanation you can give of a paragraph is a paragraph in itself, then you haven’t fully understood it and need to keep studying it. Even if you get your summary down to a sentence, but that sentence is long and complicated, there is still room for more understanding.

Let me give an example of this. Lets say you are reading Psalm 23 and your summary is that God feeds his sheep and helps them rest and protects them from danger and gives them food in front of their enemies. This summary is way too long and complicated. It would be much easier to say that Psalm 23 is about how God watches over his people as a shepherd watches over his sheep. The idea of simplification is to express all the main ideas in the shortest most efficient way possible.

Reflection

1. The Bible Code is a study of various patterns of letters in the text that reveal hidden messages in the text. Based on what we have learned here, what is wrong with this method of Biblical study.

2. Read Psalm 150. How would  you summarize this chapter using only one sentence?

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