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Monday, January 13, 2014

“A Matter of Interpretation”

The existence of various denominations and sects within Christianity has led many to conclude that there must be all sorts of different ways to interpret the Bible. Since most Christian churches say that the Bible is the Word of God, observers assume that every practice or belief of a Christian church must be based on a particular interpretation of the Bible. If another group has a different practice or belief, that must be because they have a different interpretation. This produces the conviction in people’s minds that the Bible does not speak clearly, and that one person’s interpretation of it is just as good as anyone else’s. But is this true?

If everybody was really going to have any number of different ideas about what the Bible was saying, there would be no point in writing the Bible at all. The reason authors write books is because they believe that they can expound their ideas clearly and have other people understand and perhaps accept those ideas. When people read books, it shows that they believe they will be able to understand the ideas which the author wanted to express. We read newspaper stories and magazine articles and books of philosophy in the belief that the clear communication of ideas is possible. We may disagree with what we read, but that is not the same as having a “different interpretation” of what the author was saying.

No Different from Any Other Book

The Bible is no different from any other book in that it is meant to be read and understood just as it is written. If we find a certain verse or passage confusing, we should not simply make up an interpretation: rather, we should reserve judgment until we have carefully examined the surrounding verses, chapters and books to see if we can understand what the Author was trying to say. We would do this with any human book of philosophy; why do we not do it with the Word of God?

We cannot interpret the Bible correctly unless we examine it as a whole, coherent work (in context) instead of in little bits and pieces (out of context). But how else can we be sure of interpreting the Bible correctly? After all, there are denominations, sects and cults that do try and use Bible verses to back up their teachings. How do we know if they are right or wrong?

Twisting the Meaning

Paul urged Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved … rightly handling the word of truth”. If Paul was anxious to find Timothy rightly handling or interpreting the word of truth, then it must be possible to wrongly handle the word of truth — to abuse or carelessly misinterpret it. Peter confirmed this when he spoke about Paul’s writings: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”. 

Yes, it is possible for people to misuse or twist the words of the Bible to suit their purposes. This is not due to any fault or lack of clarity in the Bible, however, but due to the ignorance or carelessness or wickedness of the human heart. To use an analogy, a man may pick up a hammer and use it to kill another man. The fact that the hammer was designed as a tool for construction rather than a weapon does not prevent its being misused — successfully — to commit murder. But does that mean the hammer is to be blamed for the crime? If the hammer had not been present would not the murderer have found some other weapon just as convenient?

How to Be Certain

For our part, if we want to be sure that we really know what the Bible says we must read and examine it for ourselves. We cannot put our trust in other people or writings to tell us what the Bible says, because if we rely upon a preacher or upon some non-Biblical book, we can be deceived. The Bible does not tell us to follow religious leaders blindly and not doubt their word or ask them any difficult questions — quite the opposite, in fact. In the book of Acts, certain Jews in the city of Berea were commended by Luke because “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so”. God wants us to use the minds He has given us to study His Word carefully so that we will not be easily misled by anyone. And any truly spiritual leader will be delighted to find that his listeners are testing his words against the Word of God.

Finally, if we want to be sure of interpreting the Bible correctly, we must pray and ask God to help us and keep us from error. He is able to show us what His Word really says. A person who does not have the Holy Spirit dwelling within him will find many things about the Bible to be puzzling, for as Paul said, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”. But for the Christian, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God”.

With careful study and prayer, anyone who is really seeking the truth can be sure of finding it in the Word of God. Some truths in Scripture are deeper and take time to appreciate, but every verse has a definite message. The Bible is not just “a matter of interpretation”.

RJA

Republished by permission of the author

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