"Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me... the passages which trouble me most are those that I do understand."

- Mark Twain

"Galileo certainly started with the assumption that the Holy Scriptures are true so there must be interpretations which agree with all scientifically proved theories.

It is important to realize that Galileo was not opposing Christianity, quite the opposite in fact, for he felt that he was a devout Christian doing his very best to save Christianity from serious error...

The Catholic Church at this time engaged in a vigorous argument with the Protestant Churches. One of the major points of disagreement was whether an individual could form their own interpretation of the Holy Scripture (the Protestant view) or...everyone must accept the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures made by the Catholic Church. Galileo's arguments came too close to this touchy issue for the Catholic Church to be able to take no action."

- J.J. O'Conner &
E.F. Robertson

"...in Holy Scripture different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Holy Scripture."

- Augustine



Isn't one interpretation just as good as the next?
1) history of interpretation


I 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!

- Galatians 1:6-8 NASB

"What 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."

- Robert Funk, Jesus Seminar founder

14.1 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 conclude:

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."

Those interpretations 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.

14.3 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 us.

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.

Cross-cultural interpretation.

Even 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 them correctly?

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?

How 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.

Today, 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.

What 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 today.

The history of interpretation.


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).


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.)


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 begins here.)

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)


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

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.


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 to assign.


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 method.

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

The Grammatical-Historical 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.)



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NEXT: The rules of interpretation - part two

See also:

The Inquisitions

What is truth?

Natural revelation

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Previous chapters have shown many proofs for the veracity of Scripture.

Even granting those to be true, one's acceptance of the biblical writings still involves interpretation.

This section discusses the nature of interpretation, and if or how it has changed since the time of the original writings.

2. What is communication?
3. Does the Bible communicate?
4. Interpretation of words
5. Cross-cultural interpretation
6. The history of interpretation