one interpretation just as good as the next?
1) history of interpretation
am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you
by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel - which is
really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion
and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel
from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you,
let him be eternally condemned!
we need is a new fiction that takes as its starting point the central
event in the Judeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new
story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings. In sum, we need
a new narrative of Jesus, a new gospel, if you will, that places Jesus
differently in the grand scheme, the epic story."
Funk, Jesus Seminar founder
Is the Bible open to interpretation?
Is orthodox Christianity
the only valid interpretation of the Bible or can it legitimately be interpreted
differently? A survey of the many organizations and individuals that profess
any kind of belief in the Bible reveals a spectrum of different interpretations,
many in conflict with one another. This does not prove that orthodox interpretation
is wrong, but neither does it prove that every interpretation is right.
The more crucial question still remains: What
were the authors trying to communicate?
What is communication?
Writing, like spoken
language, has a purpose: communication. Communication involves not only
the transmission of a certain message, it also involves the successful reception
of the same. If the message received is not the same as the one sent then
there has been the proverbial failure to communicate. Therefore, the
Bible is not communicating to us if we read into it any interpretation other
than the one or ones the authors intended.
If we fail to understand
the Bible as it was meant for us, then we are not understanding the Bible.
A simple illustration of this is the communication between parents and their
children. Often times parents issue warnings like, "Don't touch the hot
stove or you'll get burned." Parents intend for these words to be taken
at face value and to have absolute interpretation.
While it would not be
incorrect for the children to generally interpret this warning as an expression
of their parents' love and concern for them, it would be a huge mistake
for the children to accept only this secondary interpretation while ignoring
the primary one.
Here, for example, are
two possible misinterpretations of the parents' warning that children might
1.) "You just mean
you want me to be careful when I touch the stove", and
2.) "That was for
yesterday, but this is today."
are going to yield burnt little fingers. Obviously, burnt little fingers
were not the goal of the parent's warning. The parents' goal was the complete
opposite. It is only if and when the child interprets the instruction for
its intended meaning that the child will receive the safe guidance
the parent intended to communicate. The same thing applies to the Bible.
Does the Bible intend to communicate?
If, as the authors
assert, the writings convey God's instructions for our lives (God's effort
to communicate with us), then we cannot ignore or misinterpret them and
then complain about a lack of communication from God.
Many people do ignore
or misinterpret God's Word and, like the example above, incur the consequences
of their own folly. They then mistake their resulting pain and anguish to
somehow be God's fault, or conclude it to be proof of his absence. This
might be the kind of reasoning we expect from toddlers, but it makes embarrassingly
poor theology when coming from adults. It is both reasonable and rational
to believe that the biblical writings are intending to communicate with
As we have seen so far,
there is rational justification for having confidence that what we read
in the Bible today is substantially that which was written long ago, and
that the authors were writing truthfully. On this basis, we can now ask
"What do those writings mean?"
and "How do we successfully receive the
messages that the authors intended to send?" These are
answered by looking at the vehicle of message: words.
The interpretation of words.
If every word could
mean anything, then there would be no point in speaking or writing. But
words do have meanings. Different words have different meanings. The words
that were assembled to form the biblical documents have specific meanings
as well. As such, they can be likened to radio waves; they are merely the
medium by which specific ideas are being communicated.
In order to receive
that message, those words in the biblical writings have to be tuned in.
So if we hope to understand the writers' intentions, i.e. the biblical messages,
we must first understand their words.
though we have a plethora of ancient Hebrew and Greek texts that accurately
provide us with the words the authors used, how do we know if we're interpreting
One might claim that
the meaning behind their words might have been so intrinsic to their culture
that, outside of that culture, we have no certainty of what they meant.
An example of this is
seen in expressions of colloquial English: "He's really bad!", "He's really
good!", "He's really cool!", and "He's really hot!". Strangely enough, in
American English, these can all mean the same thing. But would someone who
just arrived from a foreign culture interpret them likewise? If this kind
of doubt exists about ancient Scripture, how can it be argued that any one
person or group knows what the Bible is really trying to communicate?
do we know we are not lost in a bad-good, cool-hot kind of confusion?
As detailed here,
ancient Greek is tremendously more specific than proper English. Also, because
we do have biblical writings in both Hebrew and Greek translations, we have
an early example of Scripture crossing over from one culture to another
vastly different one.
viewing the texts of those two cultures from yet a third culture (our own),
there is still no confusion over that which was written many centuries ago.
The application of the scriptures to the Hebrews was the same application
for the Greeks. The fact that the Bible retained its message in this crossing,
especially evidenced by the Greek-speaking pre-Christ Jews, is a strong
argument that the Bible still retains the same message for us. Thus typical
Hebrew word disputes such as masculine references to the Lord or
the prophecy of a virgin birth are without issue once the Greek texts
are rightfully considered.
The argument for interpretational
fidelity is further strengthened in comparing the earliest English Bibles
to modern English translations. From the time the first English translation
came out, it is obvious that western culture has changed radically. Yet
as an example of the continuity of the Bible's message, it is unquestionable
that lust, envy, pride, hatred, adultery, fornication, and lies are still,
and always have been, interpreted as things which displease God. This interpretation
applies to every known translation of Scripture including the most ancient
manuscripts (as confirmed by extra-biblical commentaries and writings);
yet another strong validation that the biblical messages are unchanged
in spite of the passing of many eras and different cultures.
about variations on more complex issues like doctrine or derived stances
on issues like abortion or euthanasia?
There are many things
professing Bible believers agree on, but there are also many things they
disagree on - some vehemently. Not only is this true today, but this has
been the case for many centuries. Because of the historicity of disagreement
over interpretation, it is important to survey the history of interpretation
so that we can better understand what constitutes orthodox interpretation
The history of interpretation.
BELIEFS IN ANCIENT TIMES
Belief that the scriptural
writings are word-for-word infallible is the oldest documented interpretation
which goes back to the ancient Hebrews. These were the people who took such
great care in preserving every letter of every word that today's
readers are blessed with a reliable recreation of even the earliest writings.
It is equally a fact of history that many Jewish leaders gradually came
to over-emphasize the straight forward teachings of the Law at the expense
of the more subtle teachings of the Prophets and the Writings. Christ himself
rebuked the Pharisees for such an unbalanced treatment of the Old Testament
as a whole.
Alexandrian Jews reacted
somewhat opposite to their predecessors in Palestine. Influenced by the
local philosophies such as Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, they tended towards
favoring allegorical interpretation when the sense of Scripture was not
clearly literal. This was also descriptive of later Christian leaders of
that area. Clement of Alexandria was an early church father who tended
to favor the allegorical interpretations to literal ones (though he, like
the Alexandrian Jews, did not deny the literal).
-- BELIEFS IN THE FIRST CENTURIES
Gnostic and Neo-Platonic
variances eventually strayed quite far from traditional interpretations
held by the Jews and the early Christian church. Gnostics eventually came
to teach that God was not the creator; that Jesus never came in the flesh,
nor suffered, nor died, nor was resurrected; and that the Gospel was not
entrusted to the church universal. These revisionist teachings eventually
helped prompt the establishment of both Jewish and Christian monasteries;
instituted to maintain the original interpretations of the scriptures, and
to refute erroneous teachings.
An additional response
by the church to all of this was the development of creeds. A creed
is essentially a summary statement of the elementary teachings of Scripture
stated in such a way as to combat one or more particular heresies of that
day. A number of creeds have been formulated over the years, each emphasizing
the particular facts or doctrines under attack at that time. The first creed
written to reaffirm traditional interpretation and belief (in the face of
Gnostic heresy) was called the Apostle's Creed. Its formal rendering dates
back to AD 180 although the form recited today comes from around AD 750.
Another important page
was turned in the history of interpretation when the Roman emperor Constantine
moved the capital of his empire from the city of Rome to Byzantium (later
Constantinople). Constantine gave his palace, the Basilica, and many of
its treasures to the Christian church that resided in Rome. This transformed
the church in that city into a political framework resembling the Roman
government itself. Consequently, the actions and opinions of that particular
church exerted considerably more influence than its vastly poorer sister
churches across the world. (Much more on the Roman church begins here.)
-- BELIEFS IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Entering into the Middle
Ages, the Roman church endorsed the interpretive instruction of Augustine:
when the literal or allegorical sense of Scripture is unclear, then the
deciding voice should be the church. (What follows is a partial comparison
of Roman Catholic interpretation with Reformed or Protestant interpretation.
A much more thorough treatment of the two positions and surrounding history
It is during the
Middle Ages that biblical interpretation is said to have been at its worst.
The excessive influence of a single viewpoint of interpretation, the Roman
viewpoint, came to exploit the rationale of Augustine to the point where
the voice of the church was held in higher esteem than Scripture itself.
Typical of this time, Hugo of St. Victor commented, "Learn first
what you should believe, and then go to the Bible to find it there." 1
Opposition to the Church
of Rome's interpretive monopoly would eventually grow. Thomas Aquinas
made comments to the effect that the literal sense of the Bible was the
necessary foundation for sound interpretation and that this foundation was
slowly and wrongfully being silenced. Even Galileo, whose revelations
of planetary observations were banned by the Roman church, asserted that
the truth of Scripture was not being impugned by his work, but rather by
Rome's own faulty interpretations. (See side bar)
-- BELIEFS IN THE REFORMATION PERIOD
During the Reformation
that was to follow, the single most important interpretive issue was the
return to the belief that the Bible had authority over the church, instead
of the Church of Rome's practice to the contrary. Berkhof summarizes the
Reformers thoughts as
the Church does not
determine what the Scriptures teach, but the Scriptures determine what
the Church ought to teach. 2
He further states,
In distinction from
the Church of Rome, the Churches of the Reformation accepted the important
principle that every individual has the right to investigate and to interpret
the Word of God for himself. It is true, they also held that the Church,
in virtue of her potestas doctrinae, was entrusted with the important
task of preserving, interpreting, and defending the Word of God, and was
qualified for this paramount duty by the Holy Spirit. But they repudiated
the idea that any ecclesiastical interpretation is per se infallible and
binding on the conscience. The interpretations of the Church have divine
authority only insofar as they are in harmony with the teachings of the
Bible as a whole. 3
The [Roman Catholic]
council of Trent, in contrast to the Reformers, emphasized that
- the authority of
ecclesiastical tradition had to be maintained,
- the highest authority
had to be ascribed to the [Latin] Vulgate, and
- it was necessary
to conform one's interpretation to the authority of the Church and to
the unanimous consent of the Fathers. 4
It would be reformers
such as Melanchthon and John Calvin who would reintroduce
a balanced interpretive scheme of the literal and the allegorical senses
resulting in no particular scheme having the upper hand.
-- BELIEFS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT
The next major event
in the history of interpretation occurred during the Enlightenment. The
perception by some that science had disproved God, as well as the philosophical
correctness du jour of disbelieving in the supernatural, spurred
a new period of allegorical interpretation. Many Eastern European theologians
promoted an extremely relative approach to Scripture. Because they doubted
the integrity of the ancient writings and erroneously discounted their historicity,
they concluded that the importance of the Bible was merely up to the individual
-- BELIEFS IN MODERN TIMES
The advent of modern
archaeology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reconfirmed
Scripture's historicity. That in turn brought about a partial waning of
Rationalism's critics and a return to a more balanced approach to interpretation.
Many people today refer to this balanced approach as the Grammatical-Historical
Prior to the balanced
approach , the grammatical position had emphasized the inspired, literal
sense of Scripture far and above all other senses. Meanwhile, the historical
school had basically been that part of rationalism that interpreted the
Bible solely by the historical context in which it was written (emphasizing
this far and above the writing itself). The
Grammatical-Historical combination becomes an attempt at balancing these
two extremes. This method is characterized by
- a careful regard
for what was actually written with the expectation of a literal rendering,
- balanced by the acceptance
of allegorical interpretation when called for by the text, and
- further balanced
by the recognition of the importance of the context in which, and to whom,
it was written.
method of interpretation as it has developed is considered perhaps the most
orthodox in Protestantism. It seeks the same appreciation for every inspired
word of Scripture that the ancient Jews first recognized, but without neglecting
the spirit in which, and with which, it was written. (This is continued
in the next section.)
The rules of interpretation - part two
What is truth?