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Why Are There Different Interpretations of the Bible?

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Why Are There Different Interpretations of the Bible?

The Bottom-Line Guide to the Bible, Part 4

Preconceived Notions Cartoon

Preconceived Notions Cartoon

Don't bother me. I'm looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions!

Don't bother me. I'm looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions!

In the previous three parts of this series, we have explained why we can be confident that the text of the books of the Bible have been reliably preserved, that most modern translations of the Bible are reliable, and that the Bible contains the right books. In short, most modern editions of the Bible are reliable versions of the original inspired writings that Christians historically have accepted as the authoritative word of God. Anyone who takes the time to read the Bible can know what it says.

At this point, however, many people raise another objection to viewing the Bible as an authoritative revelation from God. Even granting that we can know what the Bible says, they ask, how can we know what the Bible means, since there are different interpretations of the Bible? Doesn’t the fact that Christians cannot even agree among themselves as to what the Bible means make it unusable as a basis for what we believe or how we live? If God had wanted to issue a revelation, some people complain, why wouldn’t he have made it so clear that there could not be any disagreement about what it meant?

The Bible Is Clear Enough

This objection assumes that the Bible is so unclear that it can be legitimately interpreted in any number of ways. Such is simply not the case. The Bible is clear enough that the community of believers in Jesus Christ who actually believe the Bible as God’s word and seek to base all of their beliefs and values on its teachings are largely united on what it means. Historically, such Christians have accepted the Trinity, creation out of nothing, the Incarnation (Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully human), the bodily resurrection of Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, and the personal, visible return of Christ at the end of the age. In short, Bible-believing Christians generally agree on the meaning of the essentials of the Bible’s teachings. While we may have different opinions on the precise meaning of this or that verse, we agree on what the Bible as a whole teaches.

The demand that God make the Bible so clear that its statements could only be understood in one way is rather unrealistic. On the one hand, statements that are really quite clear can and often are twisted by those with an agenda. Strong-willed children are notoriously skilled at creatively reinterpreting what their parents say in order to rationalize their disobedience, regardless of how clear the parents’ directions may be. Put an idea into words and someone, somewhere will find a way to bend those words to their liking. On the other hand, it is in the very nature of human language that its communication of ideas depends on context, which allows those with no appreciation of the context to misunderstand what they read. This isn’t a bad thing, since it means that readers of the Bible need to pay close attention to everything in it, not just statements in isolation, if they are to grasp its teachings fully.

In any case, the Bible is certainly clear enough that anyone who can read it can grasp its central message, its major doctrines, and its core values. Again, the proof that this is so is the fact that for hundreds of years Christians who accepted the whole Bible as God’s word have generally reached the same basic conclusions as to its teachings.

Christians Are Not the Only People Interpreting the Bible

Some of the diversity in interpretation of the Bible results from the fact that Christians and non-Christians are both engaged in reading and interpreting the Bible. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and people of other beliefs all have their own approach to the Bible, and their interpretations get thrown into the mix along with interpretations advanced by Christians. This phenomenon is especially noticeable with the Old Testament, since Jews, Muslims, and Christians all profess to accept the Old Testament as Scripture while understanding it from very different perspectives.

Some Professing Christian Groups Really Don’t Believe the Bible

Numerous religious groups today profess to be Christian but don’t believe the Bible is the unerring, authoritative word of God. Liberal Christianity teaches that the Bible expresses the flawed views of ancient people and must give way to their more enlightened modern values and knowledge. Various other groups of modern origin claim that their founders were prophets or the like and that their writings in effect are the final authority, rather than the Bible. All such groups may profess to respect and even love the Bible, but they read the Bible through their modern religious or philosophical filter. This explains why these groups have different, often novel ways of understanding the Bible.

Christians Are Fallible Readers of the Bible

Although Scripture is infallible, Christian readers of the Bible are not. As obvious and sensible as this distinction may seem, many people seem utterly confused about it.

At one extreme are non-Christians and members of professing Christian groups that deny the authority of the Bible. They argue that since there are different interpretations of the Bible among Christians we should conclude that the Bible has no effective authority. At the other extreme are members of professing Christian groups that regard themselves as the only true Christians or their religion as the only true church. They argue that anyone who disagrees with their interpretation of the Bible simply does not really believe the Bible.

People at both of these extremes think that if there is any uncertainty or disagreement among Christians as to what the Bible means, then it cannot be the certain, sure word of God. But such a conclusion assumes that Christians cannot be mistaken or wrong about their understanding of the Bible or have different opinions on matters addressed in the Bible. Why should we make that assumption? The Bible itself clearly denies this premise: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12 ESV; see also Rom. 14:1-12; 1 Cor. 8:2-3; James 3:2; 2 Peter 3:16).

There are many reasons why Christians make mistakes in their reading of Scripture. We will note just four of these factors in the rest of this article.

Christians Who Believe the Bible Are both Different and Fallible

Christians understand some statements in the Bible differently because of their many differences. For example, Christians come from different cultural backgrounds and therefore bring different assumptions and experiences to their reading of the Bible. This isn’t a bad thing, because it allows Christians of different cultures to learn from one another. Christians in poor nations in Africa or Asia may notice things in the Bible that Christians in Western Europe or the United States might miss, and vice versa.

Christians also vary greatly in their education and reading ability. All other things being equal, someone who has a good knowledge of history, nature, human behavior, and literature is going to read the Bible with more insight than someone lacking in such background knowledge. People who have studied the original languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) are able to understand nuances that can be lost or obscured in translation. An understanding of how language works and other issues in proper interpretation, studied in the discipline known as hermeneutics, is crucially important for addressing the confusion that often arises as people misunderstand something in the Bible.

Not only do we have different backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and skills, we are also all fallible. Making mistakes is a part of the human condition, for Christians no less than for non-Christians. Even well-educated biblical scholars committed to Jesus Christ and holding a conservative, trusting view of the Bible can and do make mistakes in their interpretations of the Bible. Again, we must never lose sight of the fact that the “big picture” issues of the Bible are quite clear for both scholarly and non-scholarly readers of the Bible. On various questions with regard to the finer details of what Scripture means, though, we are all susceptible to making mistakes, as the Bible itself reminds us.

Christians Who Believe the Bible Are Still Sinners

As painful as it is to admit it, we Christians are still sinners. God has saved us by his grace through the redemptive work of his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit lives inside of us to secure us in our relationship with God and to begin conforming us to the image of the Son (see Romans 3:21-8:39). In the resurrection and eternal life in the age to come, we will be perfect, sinless creatures (1 Cor. 13:12 again; Rom. 8:28-30; 1 John 3:1-3; etc.). However, we are obviously not there yet. In this mortal life, even faithful believers have disagreements, some of which may be the result of sin (e.g., Acts 15:36-40; Gal. 2:11-13).

No doubt, sinful attitudes and desires have motivated Christians to adopt interpretations of the Bible that were self-serving rather than faithful and accurate. In this category, for example, we may confidently place the views of some Christians in the past that appealed to the Bible to justify the ownership of slaves. Such lessons from history should not be blamed on the Bible, and they should not discourage us from reading the Bible and applying it to ourselves today. After all, it was belief in the Bible’s teachings about the creation of all people in God’s image that motivated most of the efforts to abolish slavery throughout the modern world. Rather, these past abuses of the Bible should move us to approach the text with humble willingness to have our own cultural traditions and blind spots exposed.

Interpretation Involves Engaging Ideas from Outside the Bible

Some of the most controversial issues in the interpretation of the Bible concern how to understand the Bible in relation to information from outside the Bible. The two main subject areas involved, broadly speaking, are history and science. The further back in time one looks the harder the questions become. For example, interpreters disagree as to whether Genesis teaches specific ideas about the age of the universe, the history of the earth, the origins of species, and similar questions treated in modern science. They disagree about the century in which the Exodus and the Conquest took place and even what sorts of events these were. These are difficult questions because the Bible is not a science or history textbook. The result is that interpreters, even highly competent scholars who are committed to a conservative view of Scripture, disagree about these kinds of issues, although they agree on certain essentials (such as that God created the world and that he delivered the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt).

The Bible Addresses Some Very Difficult Issues

If the Bible were meant to provide only easy to understand ideas, presumably there would be a lot less disagreement about its teachings. However, the Bible does not shy away from difficult subject matter. It talks about the nature of God, after all! It also makes statements regarding God’s relationship to the world and its events, about spiritual beings that we normally do not see, about what happens in the human heart or soul, and other such mysterious and apparently very complex issues. The Bible itself contains statements indicating that such matters are in some ways beyond our comprehension (Job 42:3; Isa. 40:13-14; Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Cor. 8:2-3).

The difficulty of the subject matter probably explains why Bible-believing Christians have differing ways of understanding such concepts as predestination. We should learn what we can about the Bible’s statements on such topics, while recognizing that our understanding of them will always be limited.

Again, Christians don’t need to claim to understand everything in the Bible perfectly in order to find the Bible instructive and illuminating. There is no shame in admitting our limitations and disagreements. We can still understand the Bible’s essential teachings and their practical significance for our relationships with God and other people. Gaining clarity on those essentials is the best foundation for growing in our understanding of Scripture and making progress in resolving remaining differences of interpretation.