one interpretation just as good as the next?
2) rules and illustrations
"For if he
who comes preaches another Jesus, whom we did not preach, or if you receive
a different spirit, which you did not receive, or a different 'good news',
which you did not accept, you put up with that well enough. ...For such
men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ's apostles."
the Bible is nothing to me, only in so far as it agrees with what I think
Robert G. Ingersoll
The rules of interpretation.
this post-Reformation era, is it fair to say the Bible open to interpretation?
The Bible is open to
interpretation, but its openness is restricted by the rules of proper interpretation.
For example, "do not murder" cannot be rationally interpreted as communicating
"murder anyone you want". This would violate grammatical principles fundamental
to understanding communication. Therefore, it is absolutely not true that
the Bible can be interpreted to mean anything anyone wants it to say.
Without following proper
and reasonable guidelines, open interpretation would end up denying the
fact that specific words have specific meanings, and then all hope for what
the authors were trying to communicate would be lost.
approach to proper interpretation can be broken down into three categories
1.) the Grammatical
area in which the words, forms, and styles are scrutinized;
2.) the Historical
area in which the various cultural, political, and geographic
contexts are taken into consideration; and
3.) the Theological
area which takes into account factors peculiar to the uniqueness
of the biblical texts.
For the sake of brevity,
only the main considerations in each of these areas will be listed, and
without commentary. Books such as Louis Berkhof's Principles of Biblical
Interpretation are excellent, comprehensive references that offer many
examples and details for readers who desire to pursue the subject of interpretation
guidelines to greater depth. Here are some examples:
- The history and meaning
of the words used, including their usage today,
- Definitions and explanations
of words as provided by the biblical writers,
- The comparison to
parallel uses of words or passages to help understand what is being conveyed,
- Figurative use of
words such as metaphors, metonymies, and synecdoches, anthropomorphisms,
- Discovery of the
principle ideas being expressed as a key to the literal or figurative
- Use of similes, allegory
- Word order and the
logical connection between phrases and paragraphs,
- The general thought(s)
being expressed over an entire section or book,
- The type of connection
between passages or sections: historical, theological, logical, or ideological,
- Pauses and digressions
within passages or sections, and
- Aid from grammar
studies, concordances, or commentaries.
- The historical background
of the author's time and culture,
- Writing styles of
the ancient East, use of parallelisms, types, antitypes, etc...,
- Place, time, circumstances,
and outlook under which the particular writing was produced,
- What the author reveals
about himself, his context, and his influences,
- Geographical, political,
and religious settings,
- The identity of the
- The author's purpose
- What contexts the
other biblical authors provide for the writing being considered, and
- What context historical
and archaeological resources provide.
- The relationship
of the Old and New Testaments to one another - the Old Testament being
the context of the New Testament, and the New Testament being an interpretation
and commentary on the Old Testament,
- The Old and New Testaments
constitute the whole of written revelation,
- God's people are
not constituted by a physical sanctification, but by an inward, spiritual
- The characteristics
of progressive revelation: the New Testament being the more perfect revelation
of he who came, the Old Testament only foreshadowing he who was then yet
- Each book's role
in the Bible as a whole,
- The Bible's use of
symbolism and types where significant events prefigure future events of
even greater significance (e.g., the healing serpent lifted up in the
desert prefiguring Christ elevated on the cross; or the trials of the
Israelites in Egypt, the plagues and their eventual delivery prefiguring
the trials at the end of the age and Christ's return for his church),
- The nature of prophetic
perspective: an ability to see future events and their order but, like
multiple mountain peaks in the distance, an inability to judge their distance
in time or the lengths between them,
- The nature of how
past prophecies have been fulfilled (progressively, suddenly, or in types
which prefigure a greater fulfillment), and the implications for future
- Use of quotations
from the Old Testament in the New Testament,
- The purpose of a
passage's inclusion: the establishment of doctrine, refutation of opposition,
rhetorical purposes, illustration, or allegory,
- The number of passages
which contain the same doctrine clearly,
- The unanimity of
the passages on a given doctrine,
- The distribution
of passages concerning a specific doctrine or event, and
- The harmonization
of the writings; both separately, and as a whole.
The controversy of interpretation.
Bibles were not burned
in the streets of pre-war Germany by Nazi Schutzstaffeln because of disagreements
over translation. Pastors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer were not executed
because words such as "hill" might better have been interpreted
"mountain", or "dog" translated as "wolf".
The controversy over the Bible's interpretation is and has always been over
the denial or acceptance of its prima-facie intent. This is the real heart
of the interpretation issue.
We know that the German
churches of the Nazi era which conformed their supposed belief in the Bible
to the political atmosphere of the day avoided trouble; the so-called German
Christian Movement. They remained silent when manipulative public leaders
were putting forth their own politically correct interpretations.
Today's political atmosphere
is thankfully much different, but an important question remains: May we
legitimately conform the Bible to our own political and social leanings?
May the Bible be reinterpreted in a less judgmental,
more inclusive, and more tolerant fashion than simply accepting its hard-line
positions on various issues?
-- THE PLIABLE BIBLE
This author's former
interpretation of the Bible was that it had been written sincerely, but
allegorically; fictional fables with morals like "be nice to others". I
thought the Bible was only relevant in a purely figurative and philosophical
kind of way. Once subjected to this kind of relative interpretation, of
course, the Bible no longer conveys absolute values and consequently no
one protests it.
My former interpretation
was incorrect, not because it appealed to me, but because it violated those
basic rules of communication and interpretation. I wasn't interpreting
the Bible so much as I was manipulating the Bible.
Manipulation is often
evidenced in those
things of Scripture to which people do and do not object. For instance,
few people contest the verses of Scripture that say how glorious afterlife
can be. Yet something predictable usually happens when it comes to verses
on discipleship, accountability, and judgment. My own thoughts went something
like, "I don't think God will send anyone (me!) to hell like the Bible warns;
either it means something else, or something must have been lost or added
in the translation."
Of course, this judgment
was not made on the basis of objective evidence or interpretive rules, but
on subjective feelings; feelings of what I judged to be fair and wanted
to be true.
Arresting wrongful interpretation.
Expectedly, most people
favor interpretations that favor them in return. I'm not just referring
to the Bible, but to the interpretation of any rule or law. If at all possible,
we want interpretations that justify how we live but don't require any substantial
changes on our part. This is as true for theology as it is for tennis, Monopoly,
or anything else.
Here's an example
that illustrates the manner and selfish motivations some people exercise
in trying to manipulate proper biblical interpretation:
"I'm afraid you ran the stop sign at that last intersection."
"Well, ...that's an old sign so it doesn't apply to today."
"You're required to come to a full stop, not just a rolling stop."
"That's just the kind of backwoods, fundamentalist interpretation that
misses the loftier meaning behind road signs altogether. They're really
just reminders for those reckless nuts out there to be careful."
"May I see your license, please?"
"That sign was put there so long ago that we really have no idea what
it originally meant. Trust me - the people who posted that sign were a
different generation in a different time."
"You have fifteen days to pay this fine or appear before the judge."
"But its message is so ambiguous that it doesn't even say what it is that
I should stop. Doesn't that indicate that whoever was told to make that
sign probably got it all screwed up?! Since when do we have to stop just
because of some stupid sign painter? I read about those guys - I think
one of them was a drunk!"
"Have a nice day."
"Next time, if some judge really means for that to apply to me, I'll only
believe it if he or she is standing here and tells me so in person!!"
In case it's not obvious, the driver has no concern for the proper interpretation
of traffic signs. He was just hacked that he had gotten a ticket. His objections
were basically the same as those sometimes voiced against accepting the
orthodox interpretation of the Bible.
If you have ever been
arrested, or shall I say, if you happen to know of a friend who was ever
arrested, you probably recognize four things that an arrest typically results
1.) a bruised ego,
held accountable to a behavioral standard other than your own,
threat of punishment, and
only way out.
This also describes
the Bible's presentation of our position before God. Here's how:
1.) The revelation
of our true position before a holy God can squash a self-righteous ego.
It results in the realization that, though we are extremely important
to God, we are far less righteous than we like to think of ourselves.
2.) The Bible sets
forth God's standard of behavioral perfection and makes it clear
that we are being held accountable to his standards, not our own.
3.) We fall way short
of attaining God's standards and, as a consequence, we are in danger
of suffering because of our sin - both immediately and ultimately.
4.) And as the sure
and solitary way out, the Bible directs us to Christ - God's specific
and unique provision for us to enjoy life fully, and to avoid ultimate
-- "I JUST CHECKED WITH THE BIBLE AND, BOY, IS EVERYBODY
ELSE IN TROUBLE!"
Both right and wrong
interpretations of Scripture exist, and not discriminating between the two
is an error that is far too common. Go back to that traffic intersection
in the previous story and this time imagine four cars centrally converging
on it from different directions; each driver in agreement that traffic signals
are open to interpretation.
might seem fair in that it allows each driver to do whatever he or she wants,
and tolerant as it does not inhibit any vehicle's course or speed. Everyone
likes it this way... until they all collide in the intersection. Afterwards,
each person will be fully convinced of his or her own innocence, and equally
convinced of either the traffic sign's ineffectiveness, or that they were
victims of someone else's guilt.
Each driver will argue
that the stop sign was relative to them, but was an absolute to everyone
else. This is the inevitable problem of relative interpretation: everyone's
personal interpretation invariably ends up as a poor justification for his
or her own lifestyle, and usually to the detriment of others.
An even worse effect
of errant interpretation is that it robs the Bible of its intended role
as our trustworthy guide for living. For instance, in talking with different
people, I have heard how it is basically "okay with the Bible" to live sexually
unrestrained (generally from those who do) or "okay" to choose not to obey
Christ (generally from those who don't). But I doubt I will ever meet anyone
who feels the Bible is completely open to interpretation AND who also finds
many hard teachings in it.
People who interpret
the Bible based on their personal feelings rarely find anything in it that
really violates their comfort zone, or are convicted of their sin to the
point of life-altering repentance, or who feel an urgency to share its important
message about Christ's sacrifice.
So whenever professing
believers fail to discriminate between proper and improper interpretations,
and they live in hypocrisy of the Bible's clear intent, the Bible gets mistaken
by nonbelievers as being totally subjective. In that case, it's not really
the Bible that loses value, rather it is the effectiveness of that person's
life as a showcase for God's values and blessings that suffers loss.
By contrast, people
who accept the absolute, reverent, orthodox interpretation of the Bible
do struggle with it. Struggle does not by itself validate orthodox interpretation,
of course, but it at least suggests a person is not merely following a god
and bible crafted in his or her own narcissistic image.
That long, narrow road.
Always discerning the
proper interpretation of Scripture and always walking our talk is very difficult.
The Bible's exhortation of God's love for us is accompanied by hard teachings
concerning our behavior and accountability. I regrettably and admittedly
fall short of living out my own profession to the truth and importance of
these hard teachings. But I still acknowledge that God's high standards
cannot be interpreted away.
of the Bible yields messages which God never intended; messages largely
motivated by our selfish desire for choices without regard to consequences,
and by our desires for uninhibited comfort and happiness.
If we misinterpret the
Bible to mean anything, then, as the standard for living, the Bible really
means nothing. But neither the human authors nor the divine author went
to the trouble of preparing fifteen hundred years of writing, and protecting
and preserving it for another two thousand because it communicates nothing.
The Bible does communicate
to us, but it can only do so efficiently if we grant it to have the true
and proper interpretation its Author intended it to have.
Introduction to Divinity
can different translations exist of the same Bible?