Interpretation of the Bible

By | June 21, 2012

Most Protestants, especially evangelicals, talk about being biblical. The problem is, the bible is contained in language, and language requires interpretation into meaning. While any given language has a generally agreed upon set of meanings for various words, phrases, and sentence structures, there is some play in the interpretation from the language into the overall meaning.

A study of communication reveals three primary parts: translation of an idea from a source into some medium (we’ll assume the medium of language for our discussion here) whereby the message can be transported to a recipient, who must in turn interpret it back into an idea. Both of these translations are imperfect, therefore the recipient can receive a message to some degree different than what was originally held in mind by the source. Similarly, if there are multiple recipients, they may each receive a somewhat different message despite each receiving the same communication.

I understand this may seem like a highly technical discussion, yet it is very important in discussing how we understand the bible and come to know what is true. Many conservative Christians have a “the bible says it, that settles it” mindset. The assumption here is that one can pull a verse from anywhere in the bible, and if it seems clear “in plain English”, then it must absolutely be true. For some people it’s as though it were written in stone.

There are a couple of problems with this. Way too often people take verse out of context and because of this, apply them to mean something which isn’t actually there or which is different from what the verse means in context. The bible is not a unified technical manual either, as much as some people would like it to be. As you read more of it, you’ll find that there are place which seem to be contradictory or in conflict with one another. In light of this, many if not most people interpret the bible inconsistently.

Though people might do this anyway, it makes it more likely that people take their preexisting beliefs to the bible, and interpret the bible in light of them. This happens much more than people are aware of or would want to admit. Let me take my recent blog topic as an example: a person grows up in a church where there are no women leaders. Because of this, he or she thinks this is normal and assumes there’s a reasonable explanation for it. This person then reads 1 Timothy 2:11-14 and thinks, “Ah, this is clearly biblical.” The problem is, they are taking this out of context as they ignore the many cases of women being involved and being leaders in the bible. They are also being inconsistent because they don’t take other, apparently equally clear verses as being mandatory, such as requiring women to cover their heads.

This should not be surprising. In order to understand anything, we must have some framework of beliefs to use in assimilating the new. We all start with a set of preexisting beliefs before we go to the bible, and our understanding of the bible is shaped by this. The hope, however, is that after we start to really get to know the bible, and more importantly, the God of the bible, we will begin to understand what it actually says and allow our beliefs to be changed by it.

In reality, what people say is biblical is in many cases merely their own belief system; the bible is merely interpreted through this and filtered to support it. However even for bible scholars, there is no one, absolute way to understand every part of the bible. There will always be some disagreement. Now that said, I believe we can correctly understand what we need to know, general concepts about who God is and who we are, from the bible. The fact that we might get off on some of the details does not preclude this.

So I am not saying that there is no meaning or that the bible (or any language for that matter) can potentially mean anything at all. However, as I argued above, understanding of a message isn’t completely perfect. Christians have shattered into thousands of sub-groups, often based on differences in understanding of the bible. Subsequently one group often calls others unbiblical, when in reality they are attempting to be biblical as best as they understand it. I bring all this up because I want the bible to be understood as rightly as possible so that people can be brought closer to God. We need to be honest and humble and admit that we or our denomination doesn’t have the corner on truth—we don’t have it all figure out perfectly. We need to be open to others having differences of opinions which are equally biblical.

We need to do this because Jesus emphasized loving one another and unity above agreeing with one another. (When Paul talks about being of one mind, he is still talking about unity rather than saying we should or would all think the same.) Recently someone shared with me about some people who started attending a new church. This person believed that they would disagree with that denomination’s doctrinal views. However they had joined that particular church because of the friendliness of the people. I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe Jesus knew what he was talking about when he emphasized loving one another as more important than doctrinal consensus.” There is one Lord, but many biblical interpretations. We need to focus on the one Lord part, which will unify, rather than the biblical interpretation part which will divide.

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