A few weeks ago, a friend asked me this question: How do I respond to those who say we can interpret scripture however we want? She had been talking with someone and they had claimed that there are many interpretations to scripture and people just interpret the Bible however they want to make it fit with their viewpoint. While the second half of that sentence is true (people try to make the Bible say whatever they want), it is the first part of this sentence that I want to examine today: Is there more than one interpretation?
This is a great battle in Christendom today because almost all false Gospels rely on the answer to this question being yes. If we desire to stick to the traditional view of the Word, we will often have to deal with people saying to us: Well, that’s your interpretation.
So let’s take a look at this so that, hopefully, we will be a little more prepared the next time someone makes a statement like this.
If you write a letter to someone, does it have one meaning? Or are there several?
When you were in high school or college, did your teacher claim that there was more than one interpretation of the Iliad and the Odyssey? Or Shakespeare? To any other literary source?
They did not. Because there isn’t.
While there may be principles and applications that we can find under the surface of any written work, there is never a completely different meaning.
But for some reason, people use an argument they would never use for any other written work. If we remember that the Holy Bible is God’s very word, inspired and inerrant, then we can understand their need to have more than one interpretation. For this is how a rebellious man can do a work-around and still call himself a Christian.
And we can see—as we have seen in the past few years—that the Bible can be twisted to mean anything anyone wants if we disregard the normal approaches to understanding written documents.
2 Timothy 2:15 counsels us to correctly handle the Word of Truth. This then would lead us to the understanding that there is a right and a wrong way to interpret scripture.
John MacArthur puts it this way in regards to scripture interpretation: “You can be right and I can be wrong or I can be right and you can be wrong or we can both be wrong. But we can’t both be right.”
We have a grave responsibility to use proper hermeneutics to figure out what each passage’s proper interpretation is. (Hermeneutics is the study of the principles and methods of interpreting the text of the Bible.)
I am almost finished with Roy Zuck’s Basic Bible Interpretation (one of the resources I will recommend below) and he says this:
“Interpreting the Bible is one of the most important issues facing Christians today. It lies behind what we believe, how we live, how we get on together, and what we have to offer the world.”
Interpreting the Bible correctly is key.
So how can we be sure that we interpret the Bible correctly? What are the steps? First, there are some qualifications for us:
- We must be regenerated. We read in I Corinthians 2:14 that the natural man cannot understand the things of God. So in order to interpret and study scripture correctly, we must be saved. Not only does God open our spiritual eyes upon our salvation but it is also at this time that we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit. He is our Helper in all things, including scripture interpretation (John 14:26).
- We must be humble. If we come to the scriptures with a proud heart we will severely limit our capability in understanding God’s Word (Proverbs 16:5). A proud heart leads to an unwillingness to surrender our will to the Father’s. Instead, we find ourselves looking for scripture to promote our ideas and our agendas. This has led to many a wrong interpretation.
- We must be reverent and sober-minded. If we have a lackadaisical and careless attitude towards the Holy Word of God (2 Timothy 3:15) we will have the same attitude in interpreting it.
- We must be willing to obey all that we read. Ahhh. So now we get to the heart of the matter. We must be willing to obey. If we take a look at almost any twisting of God’s Word or false system that uses Bible verses, what do we see? We will always see obedience to only part of God’s Word. Usually, the parts that elevate, bless, or otherwise make their lives easier. The parts that are hard, that are negative, or that require one to look and be different than the world are soundly ignored. Scripture can only be interpreted correctly if we are willing to obey it in full. (Psalm 119:1-16)
- We must approach the scriptures with sound judgment and reason. We must seek to be objective rather than subjective. We must try, as best we can, to come without prejudice or preconceived notions.
- We must pray. We must ask the Lord to give us insight and lead us to the correct understanding of what we are studying. We must recognize that, in and of ourselves, we are helpless and hopeless. We need His help and guidance for all things.
Now that we know how we should personally approach the scripture, let’s take a brief look at the best way to interpret the scripture—
- It should be interpreted literally. This means that it should be interpreted in its most natural form. If you pick up a letter from a friend, you are not looking for hidden meanings or allegories. You are reading it and taking it for what it means.
- It should be interpreted in context. This means we take some time to study the entire passage, we determine the author and who they were writing to, we find out why they were writing to that group or individual. We must study the verses surrounding the favorite verse. We must find out all we can about the context of the passage. It is only after studying these things and understanding the context that we can then look for principles to apply to our own lives.
- It should be interpreted with regard to its historical understanding. In the recent years, we have so many “new interpretations”. Tossing tradition and rules out the window has led to a completely different kind of Christianity. But Paul makes it clear that we should pay attention to what has been historically taught when he writes this in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
Dividing God’s Word rightly takes work. I believe whole-heartedly that much of the error and heresy we see in the church today is due in great part to people not being willing to learn the Word for themselves. I find myself talking to more and more people who want to base their interpretation of scripture on how they feel (I just can’t believe in a God who…) or on what they have been taught by a teacher (But my teacher says…)
Whenever these two things become our guidelines we are in grave danger. Feelings have their place, after all they were created by God. They are not evil. And teachers can be most helpful to us. They can make us think and they can open our eyes. But we must, in a mature and objective manner, take responsibility for our own learning of the scriptures. We must leave milk behind us and feed on meat, always growing in our knowledge of the Word (Hebrews 5:13).
I hope that this has been helpful. There is so much that could be said regarding this subject and I feel like I have been woefully inadequate in what I have written here–like I barely scratched the surface. I will add some resource links below for those of you who would like to study this subject in a deeper way.
Principles of Interpretation by Pastor Dean Good
Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy B. Zuck